Friday, December 11, 2009

Property Rights

Cultures have differing notions of personal boundaries and property. Western ideas about plagiarism can be difficult for Chinese students to deal with. Memorization figures so prominently in their education system that they sometimes reproduce other people's work from memory, believing they're doing their own. Outright copying is not allowed in China, anymore than it is in ours, but in practice it is not sanctioned as severely. The notion of words and ideas as personal property is less well established there.

Learning cultural attitudes and practices is part of learning a language, so I spend a lot of time on plagiarism rules when I'm teaching in China. To a Western academic, the notion of ideas as property seems perfectly natural; but it's odd, when you think of it. Ideas are mobile. They morph, collide, and mutate, so it's hard to say where they came from or who they belong to.

I started to say that ideas move about like wind, but realized the statement has other connotations. Then again, if you attend the same type of meetings I do, comparing ideas with wind will not seem farfetched.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On Plagiarizing Well

Plagiarism is the academic equivalent of theft, and in institutions of higher learning, it is deal with severely. Service in the plagiarism police is nothing I relish. Had I wanted to be in law enforcement, I would have a degree in criminal justice. But, I do my best to ferret out academic dishonesty and am suitably merciless with those who attempt it. Colleges of Education cannot tolerate plagiarism among their candidates anymore than a police academy could wink at shoplifting among theirs.

This morning at the American Reading Forum, the keynote speaker pointed out that effective plagiarism suggests a certain academic competence. To plagiarize, a student must do some research and isolate significant information.

Minor problems in citation of sources are technically plagiarism. These, I just call to students' attention, and they correct them But I recently "busted" a student for handing in a paper purchased online. Until I reviewed the submission and tracked down its source, I had never seen the relevant websites. Obviously, the student knew how to reference sources of information.

As one who loves writing and doing research, I used to feel sorry for students who plagiarized. I reasoned such students just needed help. As time goes on, I become less tolerant. Dishonesty, after all, is a choice.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Age grading the blogosphere

In class the other day, I assured a group of students that I don't just grade their papers-- that I actually write. I mentioned that like most professors, I write grants and journal articles. Then I added, "I also blog." They roared with laughter, and I wanted to know what was so funny.
One of the less inhibited undergraduates explained that blogging is not something they associate with people as ancient as I. "How old should a blogger be?" I inquired.
Another young lady spoke up. "Blogging is for people older than us, but not as old as you. You know, like maybe in their thirties." She added quickly, "I'm sorry, Dr. Gann. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. You can blog if you want to." Glad she gave me permission.

Apparently, these undergraduates don't blog themselves; they prefer to use Facebook, a picture-intensive social networking site which I regard as superficial and inane, though I actually belong to it so I can view the pictures my daughter posts of my grandchild.

The students did not wish to hurt my feelings, but it was clear they had trouble imagining that antediluvian persons like me would have things to blog about, any more than they could imagine their parents engaging in sex. It's hard for people of different generations to understand each other. In a certain sense, young people inhabit a different culture. Teaching undergraduates at ETSU may not be that different from teaching in China.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A rather large village

Daniel Zhang is a Professor of English at the University of Shandong at Weihai. He did some graduate work at our university last spring and needed to document it after his return to China. He requested a transcript from ETSU, but after nearly two months, it had not come. I was not surprised when he told me this in an email. Ordinary mail goes to China by ship and can take several months. The winter I spent in Weihai, I requseted an absentee ballot for the fall 2006 Congressional elections, but it did not arrive until April 2007, months after I had returned to the US.
I learned from the registrar's office that Daniel's transcript had gone out a few days after his request. Obviously, the transcript was lost-- or moving very slowly. The registrar's office released another to me after Daniel faxed his permission, I sent it out via priority mail. FED EX is faster, but it would have cost over a hundred bucks.

Just now, Daniel notified me that he'd finally received the transcript. It took three weeks by US priority mail. Daniel writes:

When we email to each other, I feel as though we were in a village, but this transcript experience brought me back to the reality that we live on two continents.

This is the paradox of international friendships. The global village is rather large.

Above: Post offices on opposite sides of the world.

Below: Pictures taken on an auto trip last March with Daniel Zhang and his family.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Disease Control

Our parish nurse, Marie Cope has been on a campaign to get ministers to use hand sanitizer before handling communion elements. I think she's the one responsible for there being a bottle of the stuff on the communion table at Cherokee Church, and I guess it's a good idea.

Marie thinks the Chinese government's attempts to control the spread of swine flu make a lot more sense than the laissez-faire attitude in the US.

Above: Marie with her Gordon Center, who recently became a certified therapy dog.


Heraclitus said we can never step into the same river twice, for new waters are always flowing toward us. Travel changes us and meanwhile during our absence our home is changing.

We returned a week ago. Our house and lawn have been well looked after friends; though many branches had fallen during a recent storm. Our cats were healthy and happy to see us. At Warf-Pickel Hall, home of the College of Education, people were boxing things up and moving out of their offices in preparation for asbestos abatement. A phone message from an old friend informed me that Horatio Wood, an elder member of Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati had passed away. Years ago, I stayed with his family.

This was our fifth trip to China, and we leave behind many friends. The sightseeing is always fun, but far beyond that is the joy of international teaching and friendship. Part of our life is on the other side of the world. We plan to return to China next year; two universities have already invited us.

The other day, I greeted some colleague by saying "Ni hao!" in the Warf-Pickel elevator, an indication that I I'm not psychically home yet. I continue to study Chinese using the Rosetta Stone program-- it's a kind of link with what I've been doing. Next week, I'll get to resumbit my article on Chinese reading pedagogy-- one journal recently rejected it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Rice wine and chrysanthemum tea

Back in Beijing, we prepare for our return to the States. Leave taking is always difficult. We have so many friends here. We plan to return next summer. Time seems to speed up as we age. Next summer does not seem far off at all.

Today, we went to the bank and closed out our account. Afterwards, a friend drove us to the Chinese Sam's club, where Joe purchased rice wine for our friend, Dennis Cope. I seldom drink, but I once took a sip of this peculiar beverage, and have no desire to repeat the experience. The connoisseurs assure us this brand is excellent,
however. The bottle is pretty, at least.

In the evening, another friend met us for tea and noodles; another visited briefly and dropped off chrysanthemum tea.

Now we go home. Reentry always takes time. Don't know how much I'll blog once I'm back-- my State side life is interesting, but I cannot write about it as freely. Ironically, I feel freer to write in this totalitarian country.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Today, it was announced on the news that Nanjing has its first documented case of swine flu. So we weren't sure Katie Litz would be allowed to teach at the Kongzi Elementary School, since it is public. Logically, there shouldn't have been a problem-- she's been here a full week, and she shows no signs of illness, but policy isn't always determined by logic.

I'm glad to say the authorities decided that Katie could teach at the school, and everyone was appreciative.

Above: some scenes from Katie's day at Kongzi.
Young Musicians

The Kongzi Elementary School where Katie taught today has an excellent music program where the kids learn to play traditional Chinese instruments. The kids do very well, their enthusiasm making up for anything they lack in technique.

Chinese music utilizes a five tone scale in contrast with the seven tone scale we use in the West. This means the holes on their flutes are calibrated differently. But flutes are flutes-- essentially they are tubes for conducting vibrating air, though the Chinese variety lacks the gizmos I'm used to on Western flutes.

Above: Young Musicians at the Kongzi Academy
Below: I borrow a bamboo flute

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Keeping Things Simple Is Very Complex

Barry Jowett's intern hopes to become an airline hostess. She has been guiding us around Nanjing. Her concern for us is genuine, and she treats us like breakable porcelain. She means well, but it drives me up the wall. Katie is more accepting.

At a restaurant, we told the intern we would be at a banquet that evening and to order a simple lunch, but she must have been concerned about our nutrition. She ordered three dishes of meat, three dishes of vegetables, a bowl of rice for each of us, two kinds of soup, tea, cola, and watermelon. Glowering at her, I told her we ought to make her eat all the leftovers. She looked at me with her big brown doe eyes, and I felt like a monster. The Chinese always over-order in

"We've just got to do the ordering ourselves," said Katie. Easier said than done when you're traveling in China, but it provided me with the necessary motivation to use my Chinese, such as it is. The next day, at a moderately priced restaurant, I asked for tea, eggplant and cabbage, and a bowl of rice for each of us. The waitress tried to persuade me to order additional dishes, but I resisted. They actually brough what I asked. I must be learning Chinese.


We match language to that of the people around us. The process is partly unconscious. It's an example of what people do when they communicate.

In China, I talk to many non-native speakers, and to my consternation, I've started sounding something like them. At times, I drop plural endings and leave off markers of tense. Sometimes I even say 'he' when I really mean 'she.' These are all common errors for Chinese users of English, reflecting their language's grammar. I find examples rereading this blog, and it does not please me. The pull toward accommodation is strong. As one who is here to teach Standard English, I just have to fight it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Putting a Face on It

It is one thing to make a policy stating that teachers newly arrived from America may not set foot in your school, because they could carry flu germs. It is very different to say this once you meet and talk with this teacher, and share a meal.

Once officials from Nanjing's Department of Education actually met Katie Litz and we all shared a meal together, everyone relaxed. Katie is a principal in addition to being a teacher, and those present hung on her words. No longer do they worry she will infect their schools with American viruses.

I think fear of foreigners had confounded with anxiety about germs. Quarantine can be appropriate strategy for containing spread of a virus. But when it comes to dispelling fear of those different, there is nothing like contact.

Above: Scenes from the banquet welcoming Katie
Customs and Precautions

People here are panicky about the swine flu. But not so panicky as to alter their dining practices. The Chinese frown on eating alone, and they like to share food. At dinners and family meals, they eat from common bowls into which they insert their chopsticks.

Sometimes at banquets, the host will use a special set of chopsticks to serve people, but this practice is ceremonial, for once things get underway, guests dips their chopsticks into the common dishes and proceed to eat.

The practice of serving meals on individual plates would be unthinkable here-- to the Chinese, it seems very cold. The Chinese would rather restrict the movements of people unlikely to carry swine flu than alter their dining customs.

Above: guests at a banquet.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Brain Food

This is exam week all over China. Children and parents are tense, for a child's performance reflects on the family. In preparation for the day's demands, this child was taken to eat at the Chinese KFC, after her grandmother carefully arranged her pigtails.

Climbing the walls

Katie Litz is a student in ETSU's English as a Second Language endorsement program. A principal and veteran of 40 years in public education, she has come to Nanjing to do her internship in second language teaching. We planned to have her teach in a combination of public and private language program.
Right now, she can only teach in the private ones, for to some officials here, any newly arrived American is a potential source of deadly flu germs. The situation is workable -- Katie can do her required hours in the private academy, but I had hoped she would have a more varied experience. There were no private classes to be taught today, so after a discussion of lesson plans, we headed for the old city wall with Carmen, our tour guide (above).
Maybe in the next few days, the powers that be will become more flexible.
Below: Katie and husband Jack concentrate on eating a meal with chopsticks.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Felix came to ETSU last August. For his first several days, he stayed with our friends, the Copes. Joe and I also helped him get settled. Now, he is home in Hangzhou for the summer. Felix enjoys the US, but he says there are times when he wishes he did not have to return to our campus. I know what he means. Even if you know the language, there is something inherently uncomfortable about a foreign culture.

We were warmly received by Felix' family (see above).
Fruit of the lotus
Having read Homer's Odyssey, I was shocked that the Chinese eat it and was wary of eating it myself. The Greek hero, Odysseus suggests that lotus is very addictive:
Those who ate the honey-sweet lotus fruit no longer wished to bring back word to us, or sail for home. They wanted to stay with the Lotus-eaters, eating the lotus, forgetting all thoughts of return.
The lotus fruit eaten here is sweet and crunchy, but it is no more addictive than the apple. Personally, I prefer watermelon.

Above: a blooming lotus.

Below: A slice of lotus stem, ready to eat.

Chinese medicine
Felix tells us that most Chinese use a combination of Western medical care and traditional Chinese medicine. The system relies on herbal remedies and extracts of animal parts. The training for traditional doctors is long and rigorous, as it is for Western doctors.
Felix tell us he had hepatitis A at the age of 2. His parents selected traditional medicine believing it had fewer side effects.

Above and below: scenes from a Chinese clinic.

Magical Thinking

To my way of thinking, the Chinese government's swine flu policies combine medical science and magical thinking in about equal parts. A teacher who just arrived from the States in perfect health will not be allowed to teach for a week until the government decides she is virus free. However, she will be free to move about China, where she could potentially infect lots of people were she to carry the virus.

This logic reminds me of the legend of Liuhe Ta Pagoda (above). Hongzhou's Qian Tang River is tidal, and at some times of year, huge "tidal bores" flood the surrounding area. In 970 AD, King Qian (2nd above) developed an interesting way of taming the river-- he assembled a party of 10,000 men and had them shoot arrows into the river. Once he decided the river demons were dead, he ordered the men to build dikes.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Porcine politics

How a country handles a pandemic apparently depends more on history, politics, and assumptions about life than on the physical properties of viruses. Thousands of Chinese died during the SARS epidemic of 2003, and this is fresh in everyone's mind. More importantly, the Chinese concepts of personal freedom and the legitimate role of the state are different from ours..

The United States never attempted to close its border with Mexico, even though it was clear that it was the source of swine flu. By contrast, China scans international passengers for fever at airports.
When an elevated temperature is detected, the person is quarantined, along with all passengers in adjacent rows. This happened to the mayor of New Orleans and his wife on a recent visit to China. Even Chinese epidemiologists say the gesture is futile, for people are contagious several days before symptoms appear and would thus slip through the border control.

With the formal announcement by WHO that H1N1 is actually a pandemic, the controls both sensible and senseless will increase. This will affect international travel here and exchanges of all sorts.

All over China, even in very large cities like Hangzhou (population: 7 million), you see open air markets. It is essential to bargain in these places. Fengyi, or Felix (above) as he calls himself in America, was concerned that I would not know how.

I'm not entirely sure where I learned this fine art. I think from my Austrian Jewish grandmother. Her apartment was near Sutter Avenue in Brooklyn, where there were many peddlers and pushcarts years ago, and I vaguely remember her haggling.

In the market, I saw some wooden beads bound with the great knot of China. The proprietor of the stand wanted 120 yuen, or about $17.50. It was worth less than half that, I thought. We argued awhile, the proprietor in his minimal English, I in my minimal Chinese; and we kept track using a calculator. Finally, we settled on a price of 20 yuen.

Below: Trinkets in a market stand.

It's a game, sort of. Felix says I'm as good at it as the Chinese.
Maybe it's genetic.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Confucian tradition

It's probably the influence of Confucius. The Chinese view the contributions of teachers very differently from the way we do. We are revered, and it is assumed our tie to the student will be lifelong in some cases. I taught English to the young man in this picture during the Fall semester of 2006. He now has an excellent job at an international company. He goes by the English name "Max'" a name he selected, he says because it has only three letters and is therefore easy to spell.

Max had us visit his company and introduced us to his manager, who told me what an excellent employee Max is and thanked me for teaching him. Then, he arranged lunch for us at a very nice seafood restaurant.

Above: Max, who is newly married with Wendy, his wife.

Below: At the restaurant Max selects foods from the plates and fish tanks.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Perspectives of travel

Normally, I have no great fondness for spiders, and I get away from them as quickly as possible. But travel makes us newly open to the weirdness and wonder around us. So when Joe noticed this enormous spider while we were walking through a grove of pine trees yesterday evening, I stopped for photographs.


The Chinese love to hold social events which they call "banquets" and
which we might call restaurant dinner parties. Guests sit around a
rotating circular table on which is placed a huge assortment of foods,
which one grasps with chopsticks. It's a lot of eating. I continue
to wonder why the Chinese are so thin and why I always lose weight
when I'm here.

Above: Joe, me and some old friends from Weihai at a recent banquet.
Below: A dish I incorrectly identified as French fried onions.
Actually, it was fried, breaded octupus tentacles.

Friday, June 05, 2009

To understand China, one must understand the notion of "guanxi" (pronounced GWAN-SHEE). Roughly translated, it means connection or relationship. It connotes respect, familiarity, and often friendship. It is analogous to collegiality in American universities, but Guanxi cuts deeper, implying long-standingl ties. To get anything done in China, one must have guanxi. I think It was because of guanxi that Professor Li, Vice President of NCUT asked us to visit his home last evening after the ceremony, rather than to a restaurant as would have been customary . Professor Li's daughter, Sonshu, just completed her Masters degree at our university. When she arrived at ETSU in 2007, the dorms were not ready-- it is hard to arrange flights from China that mesh with everyone's schedule. Joe and I often host overseas students until they get settled; so we suggested Songshu stay with us. Her parents have always been grateful. It must be a difficult thing to send one's only child to the other side of the world.

Professor Li, who is an excellent cook, personally prepared zhaodzi. This is China's signature festival dish, and the process is labor intensive. His niece, who will study business at ETSU this fall, entertained us with a piano selection, "Wonderful Chairman Mao."

Above: The Vice President as chef.

Below: A patriotic performance


American teachers grow accustomed to criticism. The shortcomings of the education system are laid at our feet. If we only taught better, so the myth goes, parents would support us; standards would rise; students would do their work joyfully; and the achievement gap between "haves" and "have nots" would spontaneously close.

In higher education, we are told that students are "customers" whose needs we must satisfy. We are also told we must keep standards high. I work hard. I prepare carefully and spend lots of time reviewing student work. Students don't always like me. Many complain I give too much work.

At NCUT, I did what I always do-- nothing more. I gave lectures, prepared assignments, and conferred with students. And I was showered with appreciation. Go figure. Today, at a special ceremony, I was awarded honorary professorship here.

Above: I am handed my "certificate of appointment" in a red velvet folder.

Below: My certificate, complete with the university's red star seal.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

June 4th
Yesterday, a student told me it would be best not to leave my apartment today. "You never know what will happen," he said. "Especially, do not go anywhere near Tiananmen."
June 4, 2009. This is the 20th anniversary of the massacre on Tiananmen Square, where thousands of young people assembled peacefully to demand reforms from the government and were killed by automatic weapons and tanks.
I asked the young man if there were likely to be demonstrations this year. "It is best we not talk about it," he said. The fear in his face was palpable. "My parents have told me I should not go outside. You should not, either."
The Tiananmen Square events are not discussed here, and the websites about it are blocked; but older people remember what happened.. Word about the massacre passes from person to person, creating an atmosphere of tension and fear. China is much freer now than it was twenty years ago and people's lives better. Still the question remains: could this happen again?
Some people say such open repression would be unlikely today, given China's place in the world. Just as the United States was eventually too embarrassed to maintain segregation, China may relinquish such strong arm techniques.
The Chinese leaders are extremely intelligent and know that a nation cannot make progress when people are hopeless and there is no free exchange of ideas. Yet, they fear more liberty would mean fragmentation of China, for man happy with the status quo. The government wants to stay in control. As Marx said, no one gives up power without a struggle.

Above: At the heart of the city, the Chairman.

Above: Chinese flag

Above: Tiananmen Square today. The name means "Gate of heaven." Long before the massacre, the plaza was the center of many important events in Chinese history. See this website:

Below: Scenes from the massacre.

Below: The People's Army on Tiananmen

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

We told the international office that we don't need to keep seeing museums and monuments-- that we'd like to see things off the beaten path. They thought we would like to experience some authentic Chinese snack food.
Betty, a lovely young woman on the international office staff, conducted us to an area close to Tiannanmen Square in the heart of Beijing. The snack place she remembered had closed. We wandered awhile through narrow lanes where storefronts sold ice cream, trinkets, and shoes; and kids raced around on scooters. A man who did not have a shirt on upbraided us for not buying anything. "You are the rich. You must spend."
At length, we reached a snack food restaurant, and Betty asked us to pick out some eats. We chose a vegetable wrap and some orange juice. But the Chinese don't feel hospitable unless they have provided you with more food than you can possibly finish, so Betty chose additional dishes, none of which I recognized.
Always eager to practice my Chinese, I said, "Zhe xie shen ma (What's this?)" as I pointed to a plate containing a grooved and stringy white, green and black substance which was served with hot sauce. Betty's English is as well-developed as her Chinese hospitality. "Oh, "she said. "It is stomach. Of the ox."
A seasoned international guest, I refused my impulse to gag; but downed a few mouthfuls of ox with hot sauce. I suggest this policy when confronting new foods here: Don't ask what you're eating; and if you know, don't tell.

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. ...