Next week I’ll be spending my Spring Break chaperoning 22 Chinese High School kids as they volunteer their time to teach at a poor village school in Ningxia, China.
This autonomous region is the third poorest in China, and doesn’t have much of an economic output because of high labor costs, so it doesn’t have a lot going for itself…except maybe wolfberries and a possible wine market future. The Hui ethnic minority live there and most of the population are Muslim. The Mandarin spoken is not standard Mandarin, and even the students say that it’s really difficult to understand the locals.
I’m not sure what teaching I’ll be doing, but the other chaperone and I will already have our hands full with the group in general. We’ve had a few meetings, set our expectations, and had the appropriate paperwork signed, so now we just have to wait and see…They are all good kids, but they’re all 17-19. Going on a trip. And it’s co-ed. Last summer a group of them arranged this volunteer outing on their own, without any adults, so now that the school is involved and there are teachers going, rules have been put in place. I’m sure some are gonna want to test the limits, but the other teacher and I are on the same page, and, thankfully, she’s got a rep for sort of being a hardass. Makes my job easier.
I’m really excited about this, have been for a few months now. The video the two seniors showed the school in the Fall brought tears to most peoples’ eyes. The work and the donations that these students raised on their own seemed to really help the children in Ningxia. I jumped on board right after the video ended, and I’ve been hounding my administrator and checking in on the students, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything with the trip details. When it finally got the green light, they offered me the chaperoning gig, and I said, yes, you bet I wanna get in on this. The last few weeks, we’ve been doing a few different fundraisers—wearing earphones in the halls if you buy a button for 30 RMB—and have been spreading the word about how great an opportunity it is to donate to a worthy cause.
And it is a worthy cause. 100% of the donations go directly to the purchasing of clothes, school supplies, food—all given to the community in Ningxia. I had to convince a middle school student who thought he had inside info that no, the donations were not being pilfered by the school and going into the pockets of administrators, and that all the kids attending this trip were paying their own ways. Cynical little 13 year old, I tell you.
We leave this Saturday morning and we’ll get back the following Friday afternoon. I’ll have a weekend to recoup, and then back to school that Monday.
After a few months of twice-a-week classes in Mandarin, I would spend my free time thinking up short (really, really short) stories that I could translate into Chinese and share with the staff during lunch. This impressed everyone, and convinced them that I was some sort of language prodigy, not just someone who had manically tried to memorize just the words written. Somehow, listening to an American recount a three minute story made the Chinese teachers incredibly excited. It gave my teacher—which ever of the staff taught me that particular month—a lot of face, and, in China, that’s a big deal. And everyone loved the story about the wolf and the dog.
At Jayland, the English training school I worked that first year in China, we had an AYi, an older woman who cooked, cleaned, and seemed to spend a lot of her time fretting over the state of the young female Chinese teachers’ marital statuses. We called her Dajie, big sister. She smacked my shoulder the first week I met her when, at lunch, I placed my chopsticks directly into the rice, leaving them standing up in the air. It was quickly revealed to me that chopsticks placed like that symbolized death, and I never did that again (but to this day think about it every time I have a small bowl of rice). She was also one of the most enthusiastic about my Chinese story-telling, and months later, I heard her repeating the final line of the story about the wolf who chose freedom over being made a pet.
The story I told about the wolf and the dog came from a Native American myth, but many similar stories can be found from all over the world. Essentially, a tired and hungry wolf meets an energetic and well-fed dog one day. The two get to talking, and before long, the dog convinces the wolf to come home with him and live in his house with his master. The wolf loves the idea of never going hungry again, and agrees happily. As the two march off, the wolf catches a glimpse of the dog’s neck. “What’s that there, brother dog,” he asks. The dog turns a bit dour and remarks that his master ties him up every day so that he can’t run away. This startles the wolf, who then howls in anger and shock, “I would rather die free then live fat and a slave,” before dashing off back into the woods.
Dajie loved this story, and I’m not sure quite why, but lately I’ve been thinking about what the wolf said to the dog. Freedom versus slavery is a no-brainer, but what about slavery is so scary? Having no right to change, living by someone else’s rules, not being able to do what you want—these are easily on the tip of the tongue, right? I agree to all of these, but I am sort of surprised by the odd arbitrary nature of this idea of slavery.
Calling slavery captivity works when you visit a zoo, or when the species is near extinction, but isn’t the captive in a cell from which he cannot escape? Doesn’t he get meals and free time at the discretion of another? When the crowds call, isn’t there sometimes a trainer there coaxing him from his hiding place? True, he’ll get medical care when he needs it, not need to fend off vicious attacks from predators, and probably live a longer life than he would in the wild. The wild is where he belongs, though.
Humans, many have argued, are in a similar boat. Our cultures and laws, taboos and norms, and even our religions tell us stories that, in many cases, place bars firmly around an invisible perimeter no one is supposed to cross. Traveling is a great way to get a superficial look at these boundary lines, but being a tourist doesn’t make you a captive of the cultures you visit. At most, the traveler is on a day pass from the prison, but is expected to return to his cell eventually.
I’m too tired to bring this argument subtly to the point I’m trying to make, but the bottom line is we are subject to the wolf’s dilemma every day of our lives. At eighteen who isn’t hit with a near unbelievably strong urge to hit the open road, to just rip the fabric of their daily reality in two and step through the torn canvas of their life, out into something different, into something new? I remember driving home at night down Genoa, a back road that led to my parents’ house, window down and my hand slicing through the air with my fingers spread apart. A lot of the time my Intrepid would be the only thing out there, and I’d have the open sky and 97.5’s classic rock keeping me company as I cruised along. There were times I’d wish that road just kept going, that it could run straight out passed all the boundary markers I knew, all the barriers I still needed break through.
I’d turn into the neighborhood at Mollane, never really giving the road the chance to be what I knew it never could.
There were other times, when I was even younger, when I’d fantasize about running away. These whims didn’t spring from traumatic experiences or family troubles—no, I just wanted to wander around with a backpack slung over my shoulders, stomping through the small woods behind our neighborhood, and maybe I even thought I could hop a freighter or something as it passed behind the middle and high school buildings, ride it out to a new city. A few times I even packed a sorry little bag and stashed it around my bedroom. Once or twice I even climbed out my window and hung out in the woods for a few hours. I’d always return because it’d occur to me that I hadn’t finished my homework or that I’d forgotten to pack underwear. Once back inside, no one even batted an eye once they saw me. Apparently being outside for a few hours during the summer afternoon doesn’t really constitute a full-scale Amber Alert.
This idea of slavery vs liberty, or freedom vs civilization, has been around since one proto-human looked at the other and said, “This cave mine. You want in, do as I tell.” And, since it was raining outside, the other guy said, “That sounds just fine by me. As long as I get to stay warm and dry, I’ll follow the guidelines you’ve outlined.” The other proto-human studied at proto-university, evidently.
We live this compromise when we buy Roth IRAs, open lines of credit, or even restrain ourselves from rear-ending the idiot in front of us. We’ve been schooled in the subtle intricacies of this covenant with others in our human society, and we in turn educate the succeeding generations year after year. Fear of the rain may have prompted the first deal that paved the way for the rest of the civilization pact, but each one of us also makes a private accord with the world, and that accord ends with us relinquishing parts of our freedoms in return for the benefits of captivity. In short, one could say we are afraid of going hungry, just like the wolf.
Without a doubt, the benefits of civilization are far-reaching and just about innumerable, but there is still something alluring, almost provocative about the idea of an almost feral freedom that answers to no one, heeds no man-made border or boundary. Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Paulson, Quinn, Conrad, Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers, and countless others all analyzed these prison bars. In fact, just about every age and era of literature has a group of writers that peel back the veneer I’m rambling about and take a good look at what’s behind it. They wonder what it’d be like to leave the world of the bimonthly paycheck and the alarm clock wake-ups. They preach and prattle about the power of the road and the pull of the wild prairies left undiscovered…but they, like all of us, almost always eventually subscribe, at least in part, to some sort of civilization membership plan. Thoreau camped out on his friend’s property and routinely went into town when supplies dwindled, Jack drank himself into an early grave, and some of the other greats ended their stories by their own hands while others just sort of went mad in their own private ways.
We don’t ever really escape. The most we can do is walk the perimeters and toss stones over the fences we see. Honestly, if I were feral or “free,” I have no clue what I’d do. My life would not be what it is today, wouldn’t even have the values that it has now, so who’s to say that it’d be a “better” existence? If I want to say, “screw it, I’m going to Australia,” I suppose I could. It would cost me money, and I’d probably lose my current job, but I could be in Australia tomorrow if I so chose…But I don’t. Because I don’t have money to burn, an expendable job, and a solitary life. It’s almost as if being able to rail against the “bars of civilization,” is a fringe benefit of actually following that civilization’s rules. If I were to step out of its confines I’d have no way to know who I would become. And that is scary because I more or less like the Jordan I am. The wolf has always lived his way, but when he saw the leash marks on the dog’s neck he refused that life. We—I—have always had the leash, and as I’ve grown, the slack in the line has increased, giving me the chance to globe trot a bit, but the thought of throwing off the collar all together scares the living daylights out of me.
Did I just ramble myself into a circle, or, as they say in a Chinese idiom, “wu bing shen yin,” moan about an imaginary illness?
Either way, it’s Sunday night, and I’m going to get ready for another work week.
It’s been hard keeping up my Chinese study habits since I started at the International School. All my interactions with the staff are in English, except for when I chat with the Mandarin teachers or go to the copy room. In my ELL specialist position I try not to rely on my Chinese, but it has definitely come in handy in rough situations, and it’s helping me get a new student adjusted this week. However, I’m not improving.
The Learning Plateau is real, and anyone who has tried to master a skill that contains many levels will tell you that it is a leviathan that can lull the learner into languid complacency, making even the steadfast of students lethargic.
Last summer I had a great strategy. I talked with three different college students from different parts of China for an hour each, nearly every week. It helped with my listening, and strengthened my ear for dialect. I bought a great book (one of perhaps a few dozen now) with everyday situations and plenty of idioms and vocabulary. I always had it nearby and resorted to it many times a day, soaking in new phrases. Xiao Ming and I stressed Mandarin for longer periods of time, and she helped me with the correct wording constantly. Even my buddy, Matt, a guy who’s been here for 10 years, offered a few compliments. I was improving.
Then August rolled around and I was in a new position.
In an effort to break through this plateau, I have been learning a word or two a day for the last month. In my planner each week, on the weekdays, I’ve been jotting down words of the day. These words are terms that relate to my job or to something I’ve needed to know how to say while helping a student. This has been going on a month come St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve listed my words for the past month below, but I’m curious….anyone have any suggestions for learning a new language when you’ve already got a very busy schedule?
I would wager that many of you (all seven) aren’t aware of the holiday that has just passed. I’ll give you a hint: It was in celebration of a self-less hero who died too young, but left a lasting influence in the psyche and hearts of his people.
Did you guess the 22 year-old communist soldier Lei Feng?
No? Well, what the hell, man? Brush up on your communist-era Chinese heroes.
In 1963 Mao Zedong Christened March 5 “Learn from Lei Feng Day,” a day in which all Chinese people should strive toward a more self-less, frugal, altruistic ideal. The young soldier lived on a pittance of around 6 yuan a month and yet somehow managed to donate hundreds of yuan to charities. He spent his free time helping other soldiers, the elderly, and children. He volunteered to serve people on trains when he traveled. He studiously memorized Mao Zedong Thought and dreamed up even more ways in which to serve his country. He also cured cancer, rescued kittens, and could turn his body to diamonds and fart out rainbows…
Upon his untimely death at the hands of a falling telephone pole (seriously), Lei Feng’s diary was found, and the world got a peak at the inner musings of possibly the most awesome patriot since Captain America.
Every few years Lei Feng is brought out and touted as everything from an anonymous member of the proletariat doing his part, a severe scholar of communist thought, a courageous soldier, a self-less volunteer, and most recently, a hip youth with a flare for fashion and motorcycles. Rightly so, this all-purpose communist hero and his image have raised a few incredulous eyebrows. Propaganda and political agenda aside, Lei Feng’s name and his super-human good deeds and patriotism live on in the minds of modern Chinese people today in a few common phrases like, Xiang Lei Feng tongzhi xuexi! Study to be like Comrade Lei Feng!
In America we have Honest Abe, the Boy Scouts, and G I Joe, but here they have Comrade Lei Feng. If someone shows an uncanny amount of altruism and knows someone with a camera, chances are that a comparison between them and Lei Feng will be made, but just the other day I read about an American who was extended this great honorific title.
David Deems teaches in a very poor area of China, the Gansu province. He has been in China since around ’95, and works to develop the schools in the area. He teaches Mandarin and English in Dongxiang County, and raises donations to improve the teaching conditions there. He keeps meticulous records of all the donations, even writing to his donors. His accomplishments in this area are many, but what might be even more impressive is that he has routinely refused to accept a salary higher than that of the average Chinese person in the county.
The man carries a Chinese flag in his pocket just to remind himself that he’s in China, and speaks flawless Mandarin. Yes, Chinese people love this lao wai.
Honestly, the world needs more people like Mr. Deems. Although I’m not sure if they all need to carry flags in their pockets in order to remind them of something they should definitively know just by opening their eyes…Anyway…Great man.
Even though the date has passed, and, yes, the guy may be a fake, it’s still not a bad idea to heed our old pal Mao Zedong’s words, “Xiang Lei Feng tongzhi xuexi!” I think the we can all get behind someone who just wants to help people.
Along the Kai Fa Qu shoreline, just a short five or eight minute drive east of the center of the Development Area, there is a modern, artistic white bridge. If you sit out there at night you can see the stars over the harbor, and listen to the fishing boats rock back and forth on the waves as they rest for the evening anchored close to land. Even the ambient light of the city recognizes this is no place to invade, leaving the light and noise pollution off to the horizon along the peripherals. Very few people are there during these quiet hours, and if you sit still long enough, you can forget you’re sitting in China, circa 2014.
The effect is not necessarily magical so much as it is mystifying. Just a short ways up the road is the Da Yao Bay where the Dalian PX plant sits alongside a few other factories. This plant exploded a few years ago, leaking tons of oil into the water, polluting the bay as far up as the Golden Pebble Beach. Though the scene in front of the bridge is beautiful, the land around these businesses is scarred and rough. When you get up to leave the bridge, though, you may catch a glimpse of some construction going on behind it. When you look closer you see that old, derelict homes are being demolished by bulldozers and bobcats. Looking even closer, you notice that a few of the homes have clothes still hanging out to dry. The small remnant of some village is being destroyed, and the people haven’t even all left.
Kai Fa Qu, or the Development Zone, was touted as China’s largest, and there were high expectations for the area. The reality of the last twenty years has shown that those ambitions were rooted too much in fantasy. KFQ has become a residential zone, more or less used by citizens of downtown Dalian to escape the din that makes up all Chinese cities, not a haven for businesses to set up shop and bring in the big bucks. Sure there are businesses here, but not enough to keep KFQ in the limelight.
During the last few years, the construction bubble that made so many filthy rich in China has definitely popped, or at least began to fizzle. Empty rectangular complexes stand outlined against the smoggy skies like enormous playing cards that bluff the people, promising expansion and enhancement, but unable to do anything but loiter where their foundations were laid. Construction company owners and those willing to play high-stakes poker with their money bought, built, and sold these vacant goliaths for years, loving every minute of it as the gambles paid off and the money rolled in. However, now the Chinese government is getting a bit miffed about all these hollow homes, and they’re beginning to tax people with similar empty deeds. Better late than never, eh?
But the mad construction bubble is just a symptom, isn’t it? It is just one element of a much grander paradigm of thought. Yu Hua discusses at length how the ideas of copy cat products have infiltrated every stratosphere of Chinese economics, and how grassroots millionaires can be made over night in his book, “China in Ten Words.” He doesn’t come out and point a finger, but it’s pretty obvious what the culprit is: an addiction to money and the conveniences it can provide.
China is at the top of the world in the consumption of luxury goods, surpassing even the US in this ranking (Chang, chinadaily.com). In an article published just over a week ago it’s also made abundantly clear that knockoffs aren’t good enough for many consumers. Lyu Chang says, “Chinese appetite for luxury is the reason why all major European designers, such as Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, have a large presence in China.” It’s difficult for me to pronounce some of these brands let alone entertain the notion of purchasing one of their outrageously priced products, but large groups of Chinese men and women are driven to fork over their cash in order to get their hands on these logos. From chic cosmetics to classy cars, consumers in the Middle Kingdom can’t get enough. However, this need to get the latest in Western fashion doesn’t end with products you buy on a shelf, but rather escalates to purchases made in acreage. The 2014 Annual Report on Chinese International Migration revealed that many Chinese are racing to buy up real estate abroad. America and Canada have seen large numbers of Chinese investors since 2011, when China became the second-largest foreign property buyer in the United States (chinadaily.com). Population numbers certainly have a role in these statistics, but so too does the prevalent belief in the power and intoxication of money.
Where did this manic desire for Western products come from in the East? For crying out loud, before the 1800s England and other countries west of India were generally viewed through the lens of suspicion by the Chinese and Japanese. Then, after the First and Second Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the forced signing of what became known as the Unequal Treaties, this suspicion basically became fiery hatred. How the hell do we go from unwelcome “Yang Gui zi,” foreign devils, to the trend-setting idols of the modern Asian world?
The Foreign Devil
English is fashionable here. Kids and adults throw random English words and phrases into their daily life to spice up their lexicon, and people walk around with misspelled brand names and shoddy logos on their clothing. American TV shows are downloaded and streamed by teens. Friends is watched and analyzed as though it is some sort of cultural Rosetta Stone that will magically help the viewer absorb all that is Red, White, and Blue. English, and the culture that uses this language, has become a symbol of success to many parents who force their four year olds to chant and sing songs in this foreign language before they even master their own mother tongue. How did the two cultures, at their heart so vastly different from each other, become so intertwined in today’s world?
I think it had something to do with a few bombs that were dropped, the fact that during WWII the US had almost no damage done to her country, and because, for a short time, America did behave as several countries’ righteous big brother, not the spoiled only child that she’s become today. Because the US infrastructure suffered no damage, the economy kept pumping along after the war. Bullets became ball bearings, missiles turned into microwaves, and atomic bombs made way for automobiles. These products helped shape a new world that needed to pull itself out from the rubble left over from a world war, and in the process, became the first heralds of a new culture, the American Cultural Monopoly.
The consequences of this cultural imperialism can easily be seen today around the world, and many travelers who eat at Pizza Huts in Egypt, Dunkin’ Donuts in Shenyang, China, Seven Elevens in Thailand, or Dairy Queens in Cambodia can see this clearly. Just last night we had dinner with a group of friends, all from different parts of the world, and Malaysia got brought up. Billed as the “real Asia,” Malaysia left two of my friends shaking their heads and thoroughly disappointed. Segregated and culturally bland, the country did not live up to the hype, they said. Too much division and no actual blending of cultures left them feeling like they had visited a set on some stage, not a rich nexus of culture. Another Canadian friend mentioned that many of the cities in her country were all the same. Whether she was in Toronto or southern Ontario, it all looked the same. Then Xiao Ming mentioned that most Chinese cities had this very quality as well. From Luoyang to Beijing or Tianjin to Xiamen, it all blurs because there is no diversity.
It’s this lack of diversity that is alarming. Within one country the diversity may not be as pronounced, but when you begin to see a waning of it internationally, the hairs on the back of your neck better be standing on end. Are cultures really being obliterated, consumed by one encroaching, smothering mass of ideas, entertainment, and convenience being paraded around as culture? Yes.
Let’s go back to the bridge. Remember that construction going on behind it? Well, that small pocket of homes is the last of an old fishing village that had been there for centuries. In fact, all of Kai Fa Qu and most of Jinshitan was a fishing community up until a few decades ago, but now only a few houses here and there would hint at this past. Instead, Jinshitan is promoted as a scenic spot that, “…aims to become an all-round resort that integrates tourism with entertainment. Many projects are still under constructions, such as Theme Parks, Hi-tech Agriculture Sightseeing and Demonstration Park and Golden Pebble Valley Country, etc,” (travelchinaguide.com). There already is one theme park, a few golf courses, a hunting range, and even a wax museum.
These promotional endeavors are surrounded by architecture inspired by neither rich Chinese history nor by the Russian influences of the area’s hectic modern history, but by what appears to be an American southwestern style reminiscent of Arizonian or Californian suburbs. Having traveled throughout China the last few years, I can’t describe to you the amount of souvenirs that are identical all across this country. Mass-produced, faux ancient relics with no meaning are sold along every alleyway and street from here in Dalian all the way to Lhasa, Tibet. Those 56 minorities that the Han majority is so smitten with right now barely managed to keep the tatters of their cultural identities throughout China’s often prejudiced dynastic eras. Today they are regarded as Chinese gems, banners that the government likes to wave around at international audiences as a way of saying, “look at us, we still have more culture left!” Sadly, when you visit these minorities in their homelands the truth is made clear. They are oddities to many, attractions that need to stay on the stages provided for the entertainment of the masses. Much like the Native Americans living on the reservations, these minorities in China have their culture dictated to them. You can do your dances and wear your quaint clothing, but just don’t leave the fenced in area.
Lack of assimilating has always been a way some cultures have been spared destruction, at least for a while, but then natural curiosities abound in the minds of the majority group. That curiosity doesn’t always bode well for those being observed. Who are they? Why are they wearing those? Why do they always do that on this day of the week? No, son, you can’t date that girl because she’s one of them. I didn’t make enough last month, and it’s because those people keep taking the jobs. They always have money while the rest of us have to tough it out. Maybe they are the ones to blame. Yea, let’s blame them. But blame is not enough. They have to pay for their crimes. Our leader also blames them, but he knows how to deal with them. Soon they will be all gone and we will finally have what we deserve. Yes, son, you can kick that girl. She’s one of them.
Cultures get blotted out due to human atrocities all the time, but that’s not what is so startling right now. It’s the willing annihilation of some cultures that freaks me out. In China, even old Han villages are demolished, and along with them their folk traditions and way of life. In an article published in the American Conservative last month China’s on-going bulldozing of villages is explored:
Why are villages so important? What makes them distinct and culturally significant compared to cities? Villages support subsidiarity and diversity, whereas cities usually promote mass movement and centralization. Of course, the village’s specificity has downsides: it can foster clannishness and biases toward “outsiders.” Nonetheless, without the village, we would lack the kaleidoscopic culture that makes art and life so rich.
Without the village, we’d likely forget valuable traditions. Villages tend to have a longer memory than cities, due to their permanency. Landowners and families are generally more stayed, often remaining in the same area for generations. In contrast, cities often inspire new enterprise and “the next big thing.” They foster pop culture, not folk culture. In the small community, neighbors, family, and friends are almost inescapable. Whether gathering at the city hall, church, or merely visiting the grocery store, familiar faces abound. One must learn to live in communion with others. In cities, it is easier to live alone—and easier to be lost in the clamor and crowd.
The forgetting of valuable traditions is what I fear, and I’m not alone. Addictive consumerism and this race for urbanization have costs that many never saw coming. Quoting Gordon G. Chang, who wrote an article in the Times, Gracy Olmstead’s article last June says, “…the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress was planning to build a city of 260 million people, in an effort to propagate economic growth and consumption. This mammoth enterprise would require moving 250 million people from farm to city in the next dozen years,” (theamericanconservative.com). These people making these migrations are giving up more than their homes and generations of memories that are tied to the land. By adapting to city life they unwittingly let their traditions slip by the way side.
In the daily lives of young men and women, this has real side-effects. I often have conversations with Chinese people about the differences between the West and the East, and it’s amazing how conflicted they are. Values and traditions once held sacred are now sources of confusion as they navigate a world so saturated with mixed meanings, innuendo, and relativism. Role-playing, stereotypes, skewed assumptions—these are words that define the actions and thoughts of many adolescents today, but when you place a nebulous cultural identity that is constantly assaulted in the mix, you may not get just an angsty teen.
Just two weeks ago I wrote about the recent Lantern Festival, and I joked about the people hanging out in front of a McDonalds as they lit their lanterns and about the Chinese couples who cuddled and exchanged flowers because of it also being Valentines Day. A shift in thought the last few years has given rise to wide-spread acceptance of Western holidays in China. Despite most people here not caring one bit about the values and traditions of these holidays, they seem to celebrate them nonetheless. This is a byproduct or consequence of the commercialism Li Yang writes about in her China Daily article Lantern Festival Losing its Luster. She complains about how the lanterns today have sold out and are no longer handmade, but mass-produced and lack any originality. She reminisces about the detail and wonder of the Lantern Festival from her childhood, and laments the way the tides have changed the traditional Chinese holiday into a commercial event. Her complaint is very similar to my mother’s annual irritation at the faux Christmas cheer that gets shoved down our throats by the stores just so they can make their money. This is not a Chinese thing, and that’s my point. But since I live in China and this blog is about China, I’m writing about…China.
It’s this commercialism that is the weapon of the cultural imperialism I mentioned earlier. Left unchecked, international consumerism leads to cultural atrophy, or an ignorant variation of a suicide pact in which everyone is bleeding their values and traditions dry in order to get the next big thing. It’s always the commerce, the trade, the exchange of one thing for another that gets a product from point A to point B. In the case of Chinese buyers, they want the image, prestige, and convenience of Western products, but they have no clue that with each swipe of their credit card more is being bartered than they agreed to.
By the time they realize their folly the damage has been done. In China this has played out dramatically ever since the Cultural Revolution. Spurred on by Mao’s battle cry of, “Destroy the Old World; Forge the New,” entire collections of paintings and relics were destroyed, temples and ancient structures were ransacked and burned, and nearly every shred of literature was hunted down and tossed onto bonfires. Then, right after this monumental gaff, China opens itself up commercially and the gap left in the psyche of the Chinese from that cultural lobotomy got filled—by Western products.
People around the world know this. There are institutes fighting this tidal wave, but their voices are nearly drowned out by the rushing tides. In 2010 the Goethe-Institute’s president, Klaus Dieter-Lehmann talked to DW about how his group fights against this very cultural atrophy. His group works to educate and spread the German culture, but they also help keep other countries’ culture alive in their own borders. He talks about China in a part of the interview he did with Aya Bach:
When it comes to such a big power like China, couldn’t it be that the country says, we don’t really want to have anything to do with the European Enlightenment, we want to defend our own values?
All I want is for people to reflect on their values. Right now, people are only thinking about money. And that’s disastrous for a society. Because as soon as money stops rolling in, the society will break down and look critically at its behavior. That’s when thinking about values will clearly take on importance. But the process of reflection can be about great Chinese traditions and philosophers; after all, there’s also a concept of the Chinese Enlightenment.
Do we end up then in a kind of cultural relativism, where certain values become questionable because they’d be viewed differently in another culture?
I’m in favor of a compromise. I don’t believe in cultural universalism because it reduces our world to something less rich than it is. Insofar as cultural relativism enables dialogue, sharing and reflection, then I support it. But, for much too long, cultural relativism had the effect of partitioning cultures off from each other. That doesn’t work. We have a globalized world. We also have wealth in the world, but that only becomes clear to those who are able to take part in it.
I’m not a stone-thrower. I am not demonizing globalization and capitalism, but I do not think they exist together in our world without dangerous and negative consequences. They are not the enemy; it is our tendency toward forgetfulness that is to blame. Make your millions. Become a grassroots success story. Just do it without forsaking what makes this world diverse.
If evolution has shown us anything it’s that diversity equals success. Single-celled to complexity beyond the human imagination, that’s the story of our world. Creating a one-world culture will have disastrous results, I swear it.
Back on the bridge, where these ideas seem to be tossed back and forth on the wind, it’s obvious that right now in China the momentum is pushing toward a willful forgetfulness. There are factions here that fight for that cultural identity they see slipping away, but with this invisible, but very real, race for power on the world stage never slowing, villages and their way of life will continue to be bulldozed.
This week it has occurred to me that working in an international school presents a few opportunities and challenges that are nearly nonexistent in traditional state-side public schools.
Wading through the cultural differences is definitely at the top of the list, but few understand what this actually looks like in the classroom. Let’s take history, for example. Say you’re looking at a map, or even talking about the time frame of the early twentieth century, and you happen to mention that China and Taiwan are separate. Better be prepared for a few kids to pipe up with a, “Um, Taiwan is China,” and a few others to counter with, “No it’s not! I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese.” I’ve had to run peace-talks between these eighth grade emissaries a few times.
Or, you’re correcting a student’s mistake in class—him smiling the whole time—only to find out later you’ve completely disgraced him by taking away his “Face.” OR you try to pulse-check the class by wondering out loud if there are any questions or if everyone “gets it,” and they all nod their heads, eager for you to just keep going with the assignment. Start the task a minute later and no one moves for three minutes because they have no clue what’s what. You learn later that they didn’t want you to lose face by making it seem like you had not explained things clearly.
Sure, there are a bunch of kids that have been in the American system a few years and have been pretty much indoctrinated into the ways of the prepubescent monster that is their Western counterpart, but there are enough Chinese students still fresh to the US curriculum to pose this problem.
Then you have the variety of vocals that fill the halls when students are traveling from one class to the other, their many different languages pummeling your ears in ways impossible for you to decipher. Classroom English is stressed, absolutely, but rare is the class wholly without a whispered word in a native tongue. Most of the time this utterance is innocuous, but there have been a few snippets that have been anything but. One time in the library while students were doing research for a history project, I heard one boy talking about the breasts of a video game character he had seen in a website advertisement. When I looked up from across the table I told him he needed to change the topic. Confused and shocked, he asked if I had understood and I just nodded. He hasn’t said anything inappropriate in the months since then.
Bullying is always something teachers need to be vigilant about putting a stop to, but when you add in languages that no one on the staff speaks and a culture that encourages harmonious interactions, even when you’ve been slighted, this can get to be an enigma even the most well-versed behavioral specialist may find perplexing. Throw in new tech like We Chat that allows people to interact in ways faster and more ubiquitous than IMing and E-mail and you’ve got a hot mess on your hands.
The kids and the teachers in international schools also have the opportunity to have some of the widest social circles of any group of people. If your deskmates all hail from a different continent chances are that you’re going to be bringing different points of view to small group conversations. Teachers who work together for a few years and then move on to other posts don’t ever really lose touch, not today with Facebook and E-mail. Goodbyes may be more frequent, but the friendships formed can be made quicker and with more depth, too. Saying goodbye to two students this week proved to be a harder task than I had anticipated. Both of their families are heading back to their home countries, Korea and Japan, because of work changes. Staff and students took pictures with the kids and some even cried at the end of the day when they left the school for the last time. These farewells are important, though, and not always final. Sometimes they just give people destinations to travel to on vacations.
Fun days like International Day definitely get spiced up, though. Being truly international, the environment at the school on this day and the days leading up to it can be very enlightening. Families from all over the world and students with vastly different experiences can share their culture with all the flare of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
And parent-teacher conferences get a little twist when translators are used so the parents can understand what the teacher is saying about their kid. We just finished our two-day conferences and I needed to have a person translating for about three of them. I was able to use my Chinese for the first one, but then the remaining conferences required me to say things I didn’t know how to, so I got a translator.
Also, the happy birthday song in one class being sung in 8 different languages is an awesome thing to behold. Having a German student translate political cartoons during a history lesson, or a Chinese student making a connection between a Native American legend and a Song Dynasty poet’s work can make for amazing teachable moments—the students teaching the teacher, that is. Students learning how to make art from a well-known artist from Peru, or how to make film from a teacher with more experience than half the young Hollywood directors today, or learning English from a teacher who brings great stories from 20 plus years abroad to every class are fantastic ways to learn a thing or two.
Even chaperoning trips isn’t the same. In March, I am supervising a volunteering trip to the Ningxia Autonomous Region. A group of High Schoolers are going to a small village in this area and volunteering their time for a week. We’re going to teach at the small school, and do community work for the impoverished town of Tongxin, outside the capital, Yinchuan. Even though this is during Spring Break, it’s like I’m not giving up a thing. Then in May, I’m going to be going to Beijing to help supervise the Lego Robotics competition. Despite hating Beijing, I love being able to go with the kids and see them compete in this big event. These are places I just wouldn’t get to see teaching in a public school back home.
There are a dozen other things that could go in this post, but I’m tired and I have an early Professional Development training at the Canadian International School in town, so I’ll call it quits now.