Student Dinners

The students file in after calling to me through my open front door. "Can we come in?" they ask, arms laden with vegetables and a large bag of rice. Half of the students find their way to the kitchen and start preparing dinner, while the others bombard me with questions about my apartment, "who lives in this other room?" they wonder. "Why didn't you make your bed?"

Does it seem strange that my students love to come over and cook dinner at my apartment? At first this idea was as foreign as anything else here, but later the reasons for it became clear. The dorm situation in China is similar to that in America because the students can't cook for themselves. The students seem to share a universal desire to make food, and being deprived of that option makes coming to my apartment a blessing.

It's funny because I always see a different side of students when they're preparing and cooking food. They're genuinely happy. They chatter in a mix of Chinese dialects and pepper their conversations with English. I meet them halfway with questions such as "OK了吗?“ and "为什么not?" Everything seems to fall into place without much planning. There are several reasons for this, but I suspect that one important factor contributing to this efficiency is that Sichuanese Food has a repertoire of about 25 standard dishes. The students have all made these dishes before - several times. When one student yells, "Chop the onions!" another student already knows exactly how many to chop and into which 2 dishes the onions will go.

While eating they are eager to put food into my bowl and they watch my face as I try it. Everything is delicious (as always). "I'm full, eat slowly," they begin to say in Chinese as they become full. Setting their chopsticks on their bowl they politely wait for everyone to finish eating.

After dinner the students mobilize: washing the dishes, mopping the floor, and putting everything back as it was. "Sorry, I must go now" they say, one by one, as they begin to leave. After walking the students out I pass through my living room and stop in the kitchen: both places are now cleaner than when the students arrived.

There are many things which make this event enjoyable: They make the food, wash the dishes, sweep and mop the floor, take out the garbage, wash the table...

But none of these things is as worthwhile as seeing the students truly happy when they transform my apartment into a restaurant.


Office Hours

Every week Bethany and I hold office hours in her apartment. Students are free to ask questions about classes or about English in general. We are there to support students who are having difficulties and we are there to help these students improve their English. More often than not, however, the students have different ideas when they stop by on Wednesday afternoons.

Last semester it was consistently phonetics practice. I taught 3 sections of American English Phonetics and our classes included a chalkboard filled with new sounds, words that contained the new sounds, and lots of practice (I say, they say). Although helpful for pronunciation, this process was tedious. When students came to our office hours with lists of words from class I would visibly cringe.

This semester the students generally avoid class questions, favoring simple conversation to practice their English. I enjoy these times because it gives me a chance to tease the students and I know it helps the students greatly improve their listening and speaking.

Occasionally we watch movies. Chinese students don't have the same taste in movies that Bethany and I do. I realized there were differences last semester, when I discovered that their music preference is a startling universal aversion to indie rock. After discovering that the two most popular songs in China seem to be "Yesterday Once More," and "My Heart Will Go On," I gave up trying to introduce the music I enjoy. In fact, as part of my listening class I play 2 songs each week. Students are expected to put a scrambled song lyrics sheet in order, or fill in blanks (like a cloze passage). As part of an evaluation, one of my students wrote, "Maybe if you play songs that are more popular we would like them more." I was providing quality, unique music with beautiful lyrics. Why couldn't they see that?

So when it came to movies I was immediately suspicious. Would they pick up a copy of "Fargo," at the same time giving an account of how they thought the Coen brothers should have won Best Picture in addition to Screen Writing, lambasting the contrived "The English Patient" with their fist held high in the air? Or would they rapidly scan for the Disney logo, never stopping long enough to read the back of a DVD case? Often I've found the latter to be true.

Today there was hope. One of my students lifted a Charlie Chaplin DVD from the pile and insisted that we watch. This was culture. This was class. We adjusted the volume, preparing to hear the music that would accompany the silent star on his journey. Instead a Chinese dubbing explained, step-by-step, what was happening. I felt troubled. I decided to try and watch anyway, finding myself laughing along with the rest. After all, I wasn't understanding much of the Chinese anyway, so it seemed the same. While I was laughing, one of my students asked me if I understood the Chinese. "No," I replied.
"Then why are you laughing?" they asked, genuinely perplexed.

In any case, this time is an opportunity for students. I have learned to temper my own pretentious criticisms of their tastes, and for good reason: who am I to critique their love of the Backstreet Boys? It's so upbeat.

And Happy Feet? It's definitely far from pages of English words for pronunciation practice.

So while the students are intent on having their preferences, I quietly persist with my own. But I no longer play Death Cab for Cutie for an entire classroom of students. They like John Denver more.


Will you take our picture?

My backyard is, of course, a basketball court. Since last fall the hoops have been removed and it serves only as a lecture field for PE classes or as a place for oxen to cross on their way to greener pastures.

This is my immediate backyard. Farther on is a mass of demolished bricks where the school is clearing the way for a new road. The road will eventually connect to the two new buildings and the building which will be finished sometime next year. Old women spend their days chipping sediment off the bricks so that they can be resold. Walking toward the back of campus there is a new gate. It is small, but it is made of iron and locked so I have to trouble the security guard to open it. As I step through the gate I enter a completely different place. Terraced fields of Chinese Cabbage and Rice fill the landscape. People push carts and students tote worn bags and everyone stares at me when I pass.

I enter a hidden city that is filled with alleys leading to homes and vegetable markets. I pass by oxen, wild dogs, families cooking dinner, people sleeping on couches, tarps covered with rapeseed, children walking home.

"May I take your picture? You and your grandchild?" I ask.
"Hmm..." she thinks, with the proper Chinese hesitation.
"Please? I think it would be a really good picture."
"OK," she says, obviously wanting to be photographed.

I show her the digital camera and turn to leave when I hear another, older woman: "How about me, will you take my picture?"
"Of course!"

Walking home I keep my camera out, prepared for more opportunities. In China these chances come so often that I always kick myself when leaving the camera at home.

Three children pass by and the bravest one asks, "Will you take our picture?"
"OK - all three of you together."

I ask where they live, they tell me, and we go our separate ways. Tonight they will tell their family that they saw and actually talked with a foreigner. Their parents will ask, skeptically, where I was from and they will not know. But they will continue to talk, telling their parents what I said and did. How I walked and talked.

And me? I went home and wrote about it. My night is writing and sharing this cross-cultural experience. So we all went our own ways and told the stories of this small event. And tomorrow, when I return with prints of the pictures, I will probably talk with their families. We will share tea and we will struggle to communicate. We will talk about everything - and nothing, really.



The earthquake and aftershocks have caused in a few basic changes in life for people in Anshun. Because the initial earthquake caused so much devastation, people in all areas are worried about aftershocks. Many of my students have never had training about what to do in the case of an earthquake. The fear is compounded when we turn on the television to see station after station broadcasting footage of crews searching through rubble and displaced families somberly walking to their next temporary home.

Last night the students evacuated the dorms at several schools in the area because there were reports that an aftershock would occur during the night. I heard that the time of aftershocks cannot be predicted, so this is curious. The students did not seem very happy to leave their beds in the middle of the night, and several arrived late to class because they were sleeping through the morning bell. 'Yawn' was the word of the day.

I feel safe here; there seems to be no indication that anyone is worried about our region because it is so far from the earthquake. I am interested in helping the communities just outside of Chengdu most affected by the disaster. I am trying to design a long-term project related to reconstruction. This project would involve working with the local community to provide some kind of long-distance support. Currently there has been an amazing response on the part of communities around China: money is being raised and sent to communities affected by the earthquake. There is some concern that it will be more difficult to get people to help as time passes. Many volunteers here are willing to also participate in long-term projects, and we are looking to our schools for ideas.

If you have ideas or suggestions about long-term projects, or you are curious how you can help, please email me at fn0112358@gmail.com

Although I cannot be involved directly with raising funds (if that's something we decide to do), I can give such a process oversight to ensure the money goes to the communities in need (schools can contact me via email). Individuals can look into organizations like Mercy Corps and Red Cross.




Peace Corps Volunteers

All volunteers have been located and they are safe. There is a news release on the Peace Corps webpage (www.peacecorps.gov) that explains everything.

Peace Corps is doing everything they can to ensure our continued safety.


Earthquake in China

You have probably already heard about the earthquake which has killed around 8,500 people at last count. The Peace Corps was incredibly quick to respond by contacting all of the volunteers and ensuring their safety. This included a checklist involving our future safety (e.g. is your apt. damaged?). The relief I have that all of my American friends are fine is quickly overshadowed by the fact that so many people have died.

There are many heavy hearts as people walk around silently: shocked by this disaster.

I am in the process of finding Chinese aid organizations which will provide support to the people in Sichuan province, and I will post the information here when I find one that is reputable.


Everybody seemed to feel the Earthquake but me. I am just fine.



Education (3 of 4)

In my first discussion of education in China I provided a chronological overview of education throughout the grade levels. A reader who has lived here for 3 years informed me that I had made a mistake about how college testing worked, and so this will be about testing.

China is a culture that, when looking at Bloom's Taxonomy, can only see "knowledge." At first I found against this idea because it left creativity to be discovered only by truly bold students, but then I began to understand. Memorization is the product of a culture that values tradition because those who can remember the tradition best are the members who are most valued (generally speaking). Also, the writing aspect of learning Chinese (and, to some extent, the reading) is a test in memorization on a massive scale. Students write characters over and over again hundreds or thousands of times in an effort to remember the character and improve their handwriting. My students can recite the same classic poems and remember famous Chinese writers with startling detail. The emphasis upon knowledge has led to an idea that there are "correct" and "incorrect" ways to do things. For example, if I were to write a character on the chalkboard, but not use the correct stroke order, the students would scream in unison, "wrong!" Does it matter that I wrote the character in the wrong order? That's an argument I love to take up with my students. The students were even asking me why I write a "t" with the vertical line first, as that doesn't follow stroke order for Chinese. "Is that American English stroke order?" they asked me.

All of this emphasis on knowledge and standardization has led to testing, which determines everything for a student. Participation in Band, Track, National Honor Society, or Debate Club are not helpful in seeking entrance to a good college. More helpful is a high Gao Kao score, which can be submitted to the school for acceptance or rejection. Depending on their score and the scores of other students that year, a student's Gao Kao might get them into a good or bad school (or somewhere between).

There is even a national standardized test for dancing. "There must be one correct way," is likely the idea behind this. If I were to guess, Kung Fu and Calligraphy also have tests (but I really don't know).

Testing is not a new idea in China, which convinces me that education really is a product of deep historical and cultural roots. During the Ming Dynasty people could take the civil service examination, which included only four books (Analects, Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean, and Great Learning) which were translated by the Song scholar Zhu Xi. One way to improve odds of success for these tests was to write the classics in small characters inside clothes. I believe cheating to be a product of overemphasis upon knowledge, and I think that any culture emphasizing knowledge more than application, synthesis, analysis or evaluation is likely to experience increased cheating. Once an increase in cheating happens for an extended period, this will likely help to redefine the culture's view of such behavior. I have seen and heard much about cheating in China and I have the idea that it's probably helped along by teachers and professors allowing it to happen.

Students who do well on the Gao Kao will usually go on to college for further study. Those who do not do well can stay in high school and study for an additional year before re-taking the test. With the increased pressure to get into a good school, this practice is more common that you might guess. Recently the test was changed from July to June, but the saying hasn't completely disappeared: "black July" is a time of intense heat and intense pressure as students nationwide take the Gao Kao and hope for a bright future.

Once students enter a college they tend to relax more. There are rarely all-day study sessions and being away from their parents allows them more friends or even the possibility of a boyfriend/girlfriend. Nonetheless, students are still under pressure from one or more of four tests: CET-4, CET-6, TEM-4, TEM-8.

The CET tests are two different English tests for non-English majors. The CET-4 is required for graduation of all non-English majors, and the same students can take the CET-6 for a bonus (it will likely help students to get an even better job). The same is true for English majors with the TEM tests: The TEM-4 is required for graduation and the TEM-8 will open more doors for these students.

There is a universal foreign language in China: English. Students all over campus study English and almost every student can speak to some extent. Whether or not they will speak to me in English is different due to the shyness and group-mentality of students.

As a poor test-taker, I am thankful that I was born in the American system of education. Opportunities can be found for students who get good grades, attend clubs, play sports, write for the newspaper, or do other extracurricular activities. The ACT or SAT isn't everything. Some students here believe that the Chinese system is unfair. These are the students who may not be attending the college of their choice (in fact, the vast majority of my students did not want to come to this school). It's likely that students attending better schools in larger cities feel the system is working just fine.

As China continues to grow and develop rapidly, the education system is certain to follow. I don't anticipate drastic changes in education and testing, but preparing students for a global economy may need to go beyond memorizing lists of information.



250 students and teachers filed in to listen to my Special Education in America lecture. A student translator and I struggled to match the Chinese and English scripts so my words could be translated appropriately. She frantically shuffled through the papers and I was trying to find a USB port for the PowerPoint presentation.

As the lecture started I realized that there was no lectern, no place to put my papers, and the microphone was too low. I asked the audience if anyone would lend me their books to help prop the microphone up. 10 books materialized and I began speaking. The students had trouble understanding me because I spoke fast and used many works specific to Special Education, but the translation cleared up most of the problems.

Afterwards the students asked questions for about 20 minutes. Overall it was rather uneventful, though I did get a chance to communicate the idea that I want to learn more about Special Education in China.


Culture and Censorship

Let me begin by saying that my knowledge of Chinese Culture is limited to a the handful of books I have read and the 10 months I have spent in China.

I've read enough news in the past several weeks to understand one thing: there is a fundamental misunderstanding of culture between East and West. It becomes even more problematic when the western mind agrees that a cultural misunderstanding exists, but then pushes forward in an attempt to obtain a superficial explanation of the differences. Unfortunately, nobody is going to understand the vast differences between western and eastern culture by clinging to a few vague generalizations (agrarian society=collectivism, propaganda=indoctrination). Before we start pointing fingers we should do two things: worry about domestic problems and try to understand the reasons people do things. Whether or not I 'agree' or 'disagree' with any aspects of Chinese culture is also quite irrelevant; I'm not trying to persuade so much as I'm trying to get people to stop and think before they start joining rallies.

Often people argue that China is not free, but I need to ask you: what exactly is freedom? Is freedom the right to exploit the lower classes? Is freedom the idea that if you have more money you are entitled to more freedom? Though we constantly fight against these notions in America, they are often nonetheless true. Americans are too busy with iPods and making Future Plans to stop and realize that their "freedom" is being maintained by the third of the country that actually votes, only to watch representatives choose who will lead through an electoral college.

There is a hard truth that for people to have money there must be people who do not. We are in constant competition for resources, and freedom, wealth, and independence result in economic disparities.

The very idea of freedom is curious. We must all relent to the inevitable desire of individuals to control resources. Freedom itself is a balance between the need most humans feel to have some form of government and the right of individual freedoms. What if one society decides that individual freedoms hinder the freedom of the society? Are they wrong to restrict that person's freedom if it truly damages the group's ability to be free?

I know how this sounds, and I hate the idea of submitting my individual freedom to a group (to a certain extent). The only difference is the amount of freedom we are willing to give based upon our circumstances. It might really bother an American to take the bus rather than own a car, but this is only for reasons of a sort of indoctrination of freedom imposed on us by our own society: we've always been told that it's OK to have your own things and now they want to take them away! This is a poor example, increasingly people in China own their own vehicles, but the idea is one to consider. Perhaps our lack of tolerance for countries we perceive as less 'free' began during our childhoods when our parents were careful to explain all of the things that were 'ours' (our property): toys, books, model train sets. Someone who believes a strong central government that will protect them from things which are not in their best interests or shared property which can be used by all members of the group were likely taught these ideas at young ages.

When we march around ignorantly saying, "Give them more freedom!" Shouldn't we stop to think if that's what everyone really wants? I know my idea of this was simple at first: everyone will love 'freedom' because I sure think it's great! Sometimes there are just more important things.

I don't mean to talk so much around the subject, but we really need to grasp the notion that there are cultural differences between societies which fundamentally affect their notions of freedom and censorship. Until we can begin to understand these differences on a deeper level, we will continue to be frustrated with the larger implications.


Education (part 2 of 4)

Yesterday the foreign teachers attended a meeting. I was invited to the meeting 5 minutes before it took place. In all fairness, the leader wanted to invite me the day before, like she invited the other teachers, but I wasn't home to answer my phone. Calling a day before, to a Chinese person's view of western schedules, is like calling a week early and leaving an email reminder for my outlook.

The details of the meeting were interesting. Well, I should say, the details were interesting because they didn't apply to 2 of the teachers at the meeting. This detail could have been used to avoid inviting us to the meeting, but there are less reasonable forces at work sometimes.

The teachers who had classes of 4th year senior students were instructed to not give a final examination, due to the short class time of the seniors. This semester seniors have only one month of class crammed together with their student-teaching experience. This short time is insufficient for a final examination to determine a true grade, so we were asked to grade seniors based on class work alone.

After this we were told not to let the students leave until the entire month of teaching was completed. "We don't want students wandering around the campus, it can be dangerous," the woman told us. I tried not to laugh and covered my mouth with my arm as I faked a cough. Dangerous? I had been on campus plenty of times and lived to tell the tale. In fact, I live there. Once I even petted a dog that was being walked by a friendly-looking owner. But then, that's how they get you: they look friendly and then strike when you least expect it. Perhaps it's Chinese indirect communication for, "it's against the government's policy for them not to attend class."

After this she went on to tell us how important it is for the students to pass. "If they fail one class they can make it up next semester, but if they fail two classes they can never make them up. They won't be able to get a diploma." This was interesting in itself, but I almost fell off my seat when she continued, "it's probably best to just let them pass, without a diploma it is very difficult to find a job." Students with seniors were to know that failing students would be a burden to the department and to the school. This would cause problems and problems were best avoided. Official orders: pass everyone.

This would have surprised me 10 months ago. In fact, I had heard similar stories and I was a bit surprised. No longer. In that time I have heard more unbelievable stories which are true, and I have even been the teacher monitoring a class final exam when mass cheating broke out last semester. I was told about a school administering the CET-4 (one of the federal mandated test for college students), which was being proctored by teachers at the school of students who were taking the test. Because the test wasn't proctored by outside "disinterested" observers whose goal was standardization in all respects, the teachers merely said, "No cheating," with a wink and a smile. The result? Unadulterated cheating while the students who were better in English were culturally forced to submit to their classmates' looking over their shoulders.

The problem with all of this is not so deeply rooted in Chinese culture, but a combination of culture and poverty. The aforementioned school might rarely see a student pass such an exam, which really is difficult if the cycle of poverty continues to place low quality teachers in poor areas: We see it in all societies. What am I learning from all of this? I don't know. Perhaps I'm finding out more than I should be.