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.
People like Amsterdam for a bunch of different reasons, but the legally available cannabis and Red Light District are always on the list. When you think of Spring Break, you probably think of Cancun or some place hot and steamy so you have a valid reason for imbibing ridiculous amounts of alcohol and losing articles of clothing. People visit places for a bunch of different reasons, and not least of all of those reasons is so that they can do stuff they can’t easily do at home.
China has a bunch of pretty neat things to see, as just about anyone in the world could tell you, but there are also certain behaviors or actions you can get away with here that you couldn’t back in the US or other Western countries. Here are some of the behaviors that are socially acceptable (by many, but not 100% of everybody) in China that I’ve noticed A LOT of people doing.
I’m not complaining, just stating observations…
Public Toilets are a thing of absolute horror in China. If you’re blind you can locate the restroom by scent more than a hundred yards away in almost all cases—even Hospitals. Most are squat toilets, which are glorified holes in the ground, with puddles and clumps of human waste seemingly everywhere but in the hole. When I had my body check in the hospital almost two years ago I had to use the restroom for a part, and I swear to God the creators of Saw got inspiration from the bathroom I was in.
Maybe it’s the downright atrocious stench associated with these places or that everyone here is just a mild exhibitionist, but when the toilet is not readily available the road, sidewalk, grass, trashcan, stairs, and even sink will do just fine. I have seen everyone from a toddler all the way to a grown man drop trout and just…pee. They do it just about anywhere. Often they will make the effort to, you know, go into an alley or stand next to something, but the parents with children who have to go—forget about it. Dear Old Mom will just pick up her little tyke so that his butt hangs out the back of his “split bottom” pants and make a “shhhhh” sound in his ear until he lets loose his flow. Where does this happen, you ask? EVERYWHERE. No joke. That list a few lines up, yeah, all of those places.
In fact, just a few days ago Xiao Ming and I were at this nice little area by a government building, where tons of people always hang out, and this six-year-old’s mom gives him the go-ahead to take a leak right in the middle of a crowd. SERIOUSLY. There were about a hundred people just milling around and no one said a damn thing. This boy, who is obviously old enough to know you do this crap in a toilet, is just spelling his name right where people are walking, in daylight. But the funniest thing, or most appalling part, is that just five minutes before we witnessed another young boy trip and face plant on the sidewalk—right where the second boy ended up peeing. Then, after the boy left, a young couple played with their jianzi, basically the Chinese version of hackey sack, right in the same spot.
And all of this is just Number 1. Number 2 requires a bit more tact, but not much more. There are times when you can hear suspicious grunts from behind bushes and trees, and on more than one occasion I’ve seen the leftovers not far off from walking paths. Yup.
So, who needs public toilets when all of the public is a toilet?
Don’t have a trashcan? Can’t abide dirtying your backseat? Toss it out the window.
I have seen countless acts of littering from all levels of citizens here. Taxi drivers lopping plastic bottles out the window, police officers dropping cigarette boxes, and even students throwing candy wrappers from classrooms are all annoyingly common examples of this type of behavior.
But it’s when you see the piles upon piles of garbage collected on the corners of streets or in the alleys at night being picked through by people looking for plastics and other valuable items that it becomes truly disheartening.
I have made it my mission to never litter here. Even if I must carry an empty water bottle for an hour, I won’t just discard it on the ground. When I see people doing it, I try to give them the stink eye, but it probably just looks like I have bowel problems, so I stop.
However, knowing the option of ridding your person of the added burden of toting around trash (la ji) by simply tossing it on the ground is available to you does make life a bit easier…you’re not doing anything for the scenery, but you certainly are making your life easier.
I remember the Napster and Lime Wire days of my youth where I spent hours downloading tunes and—er, wait, I didn’t do much of that, either. But a whole helluva lot of other people did, and that was illegal…apparently.
Today people still have a dozen ways to get their hands (eyes, ears, etc.) on pirated or downloaded material, even in the States, but in China you don’t have to be savvy or hush-hush about it. Just go into a store and select a DVD of a movie that just came out in the theaters two weeks ago…for 12 RMB. That’s like $2. Or, better yet, just download them from torrent sites and store them on your computer…OR, even better—and quicker—just use Baidu to stream them. Baidu is the closest thing to a Chinese Youtube, but they always have full episodes of shows, and whole movies…except most of the nudity is edited out of True Blood, Game of Thrones, and other flicks.
A lot of young people are streaming American shows like Friends, The Big Bang Theory, and even Grey’s Anatomy in order to learn about Western culture and study the language with the English subtitles beneath the Chinese ones. The Vampire Diaries is also big here, along with Gossip Girl and the other ones I’ve mentioned above.
I have picked up a habit of buying a DVD a week since coming here, sometimes more. The last few months I’ve been cooling it, but that just means I’m downloading more. The problem is I won’t be bringing any of my DVD stash back to the States with me. I’ve heard tales of people getting them through customs and all that, but I’m just not willing to test my luck…especially when getting caught smuggling one is something like 10,000 bucks. No, I’ll probably just give ‘em away or stake out a corner on the street and sell them for 10 RMB each. By the time I’m ready to come home I might be able to sell enough to pay for a flight back.
Gone are the days you needed to worry about an open container in public…People strut around with bottles of beer (pi jiu) in the evenings all the time. I’ve talked a little about the North Eastern “Drinking Culture” before, but this is just another tidbit.
On the downside, as a pedestrian, you need to remain ever vigilant for those reeking puddles and piles of vomit that are strewn about along sidewalks and crosswalks.
Just the other night I fell victim to one and needed to wash off my sandals. Let’s hear it, the collective ewwwwwww!
It was recently Independence Day in the US, and when I told this to Xiao Ming she asked me what I usually did on the holiday. Easy, I said: We usually get the day off and spend it near a pool, a grill, or a cooler, and surround ourselves with friends and family. Then, at night, on this special day, we watch fireworks as they are mostly legally set off.
How long does it last? she asked. One glorious, patriotic day, said I.
She kinda laughed, and I could guess why.
Here in Dalian there is tons of Korean BBQ all the time, drinking at Five Color City often enough, and yes, fireworks. I’ve told you before about how I can hear fireworks just about every single day. They light them when they have a new business opening, a floor of construction on a site is finished, weddings and funerals, and just for the fun of it. They don’t relegate them to one day, holiday, or social event; they spread the love and sulfur all around.
So don’t worry about telling the cashier you’re taking them out of state or the cops that, yes, you heard the ruckus but it was from down the street, in China you can just toss a firecracker out your apartment window and hope for the best.
Got something in the back of your throat and no tissue to hock it into? You got it, just lob that loogie right onto the ground. Pay no nevermind to your surroundings or whether you’re in or out of public transportation vehicles.
Now before the 2010 Beijing Olympics you could see that a concerted effort endeavored to annihilate this particular trend, but up in the NE area, especially in Kai Fa Qu, you have a healthy mix of classes and some of them…just…spit.
This hails from the Confucius (probably) belief of “better out than in,” and people, all ages of them, follow it religiously. I’m told that spitting is not actually a cultural thing in China, it’s just a nasty freakin’ habit that people have tirelessly clung to, but that doesn’t matter when you are dodging not only bile piles but also spittle puddles in the street. People will just spit right in front, beside, and behind you. No questions asked.
One of my first experiences with the spitting craze that so many are hip to came one night when a group of us were walking and a horrible sound, similar to a squirrel with asthma trying to do a Joker laugh erupted from somewhere to our right. Now the squirrel had the cover of shadows on its side, but the sound…good gawd. And the guy leading us around turns to me and, without a smile says, “And that is a little old lady.”
A quick look verified this, and her image has forever been seared into my retinas.
When we were on a long-distance bus from zhengzhou there was another woman…
I heard the coughing hack as she summoned the saliva from the back of her throat, and then the wet, puckering smack of her lips as she spat, and finally the splat as the loogie hit the floor. INSIDE THE BUS.
A fan of the bon fire, but unable to put things aflame without your neighbors calling the cops (jing cha) on you because you didn’t let the fire department know of your intentions beforehand? Come to China and light mounds of loose leaf paper on fire just to have the wind lift them into the air and down the intersection.
As I’ve noted in a previous entry, the tradition of lighting paper, or paper money (ming bi) to send to their ancestors is very common. This is usually done at intersections and on special days like holidays or their ancestor’s b-day. The money is burnt in order to pass to the spirit world, or grandpa’s Spirit Bank account. There are those who burn more than just Casper Cash, though. They burn paper objects, and whatnot.
I have sat and watched several older couples in the act of burning these papers, and every time I’m attracted to the reverence in their gestures. This is a serious ritual for them.
Take a look at some older photos of China and you’ll probably see the ubiquitous bicycle somewhere in the frame. Until a relatively recent time China was a bike country, then a moped country, and now, in most cities, it’s quickly transforming itself into an automobile nation. There are concurrent problems that arise when ever change happens too fast, though.
Bad drivers, subjective traffic laws, advance games of Frogger every time you cross the road, and the lack of parking places are but a few. Go to any store in China and it’s easy to see that the building or the plan for it was stenciled out with no care whatsoever about where the customers would be puttin’ their cars. Xiao Ming, who has a PhD in Urban Planning and Land Use from France, has told me that a contributing factor to this situation is the building’s investor. He’s out to make as much money as possible and parking places just aren’t where the cash is. In fact, they see parking as a free service they don’t want to be tied to when they could be adding another hundred feet to their blueprints. This is neither here nor there, but she’s told me about how city officials will hire urban planners to design a city that is efficient and modern only to ignore the suggestions in order to make a buck. That’s why you get a lot of bullcrap set ups half the time here.
So what happens? Side walk parking and driving. Yes, as you stroll down the sidewalk you are on the look out for puke and slobber, but also for the ever-present threat of being run over. I’ve dodged a few close calls already.
Can’t find a place to park at the bank or grocers? Just park it right there where everyone is walking.
Wish you could just get a better deal on that scarf or that necklace? Bargaining not an option back home? Come to China where just about anything is up for negotiations.
The Chinese love a good bargaining match, and those who work in this sort of profession see it as a test of skill and moral fiber when they can get a good deal or make a buck off a customer.
Of course, when I first got here I had no precedent for haggling at all, and I’m certain I’ve overpaid on a bunch of stuff, but after a while I got used to it…and now I like it. I love asking if I could get something a little cheaper and have the merchant not laugh me off or threaten to call the cops. It’s great when the final price is less than half of the original. You can negotiate everything from socks to swords, man.
I was once on the look out for some new socks, wa zi, and the merchant wanted ten for two pairs. I chatted with them for a few moments before I then added a third set and still wanted a lower price. I held my ground, and finally she relented, giving them to me for 8 RMB. This was no big win, but it was funny because after the deal the merchant’s friend, a guy who’d been there the whole time laughed and gave me the thumbs up, adding a bit too enthusiastically, that I was like a Chinese person. All because I negotiated. I probably still got ripped off, but at least it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
And for my last birthday Xiao Ming bought me a katana. A genuine, full-tang katana. The thing is sweeeeet. I love swords, have since Highlander stole my imagination as a youngster, and have collected them for years. I have two swords here, both of which have been bought by Xiao Ming for me. I sometimes take the katana out and wave it around, silently whisper, “There can be only one,” just for the hell of it.
Anyway, original price was something like 2,000RMB, but she got it down to 1,200 RMB.
Negotiating is fun.
Don’t have any unique talents or marketable skills of your own? Do you have powerful or well-connect friends? Great, then those connections can help you with everything you need in this life.
Guan Xi, baby. It’s the Golden Ticket.
I once read that the evolution of guan xi as a means of social-political-business interaction rose to prominence due to the unreliable nature of the nation’s legal system and its enforcement. People needed ways to trust others, to know a man’s worth or his salt, or something like that.
My first thought to that is: Well, why not strengthen the laws and give the local governments incentive to enforce them instead of constantly perpetuating the double-standards?
Thus, the socio-cultural concept of Guan Xi stepped forth into the world. This is usually translated into “relationship,” but I’d be remiss if I whole-heartedly endorsed that simple definition of a much more complicated series of interconnected partnerships. You can have good guan xi with someone or bad, strong or weak. Some guan xi can get you discounts at stores while other kinds can help you set up a completely illegal establishment like a store or school without any kind of certification at all.
I have an adult student who once told me about a government official’s son who his company had just hired. My student seemed annoyed, so I inquired after it. Turns out, the official’s son is a complete waste of space. He has no training or drive to do the job well, but he is in a supervisor’s role. All because of guanxi.
I asked some teenage students once how they’d feel if another job applicant got a job that they were also interviewing for. They said that’d be fine. Normal thought, right? Sure. Then I asked them how’d they feel if they knew the only reason the other guy got it was because his father had strong guan xi with the CEO. They were less ok with that, but not because they thought it was a form of cheating. They were just angry because they couldn’t get the job with their skills or their guan xi. I asked if they thought of using the connections to get stuff was a form of cheating and they said they didn’t think so. One even went as far as saying that having good guan xi is actually a skill that’s on the same level as having good engineering skills.
Unfortunately, guanxi is such an engrained part of Chinese culture that foreigners are almost entirely excluded from being active members in it. Sure, we can benefit from someone’s guan xi (I certainly have), but actually having your own guanxi in any tangible, Chinese Way is nearly impossible. If you stay a long time, learn the language, or do something truly memorable for a person who already has strong guan xi then maybe, just maybe, he’ll take you under his guanxi wing and spread the wealth, but don’t count on it.
I never had a fake ID growing up. In fact, the bar scene wasn’t my scene in the least, so I never needed one. I knew some folks who had them, but not many. For me, fake IDs existed mostly in TV shows with annoying pseudo-delinquents.
Here in China, though, the fake ID is just the tip of the ice berg. I know two public school teachers who did not finish high school, but instead had fake diplomas made and used their uncle’s guan xi to get their current positions. I know of training schools that have augmented dates on lincensure certificates so well that the forgery and the real McCoy are identical in every way, even down to the perforated edges.
Heck, due to a hiccup in the Real Estate/Marital Laws married couples who own two houses are forced to pay an outrageous tax, so what are they doing? Getting divorces. They’re still “together,” just not, you know, on paper. For some, going through the motions of a divorce that cost about 20RMB to save thousands is beneath them. Instead, they’d rather pay a forger more than 100RMB to get fake divorce documents.
There are even people who pass out business cards for this forgery service! Gotta love it. Not that I’m already not cynical enough, but it’s gotten to the point where any person in a position of relative power elicits two questions from me: Did you earn this job on merit? Do you have legitimate credentials?
Sure, the National Govt. is making efforts to crack down on this sort of thing, but who’s to say the guy carrying out the policy hasn’t frequented the same services?
Want a job without all that hassle of earning it? No worries.