During my time in the office I have overheard very little. The spoken language is often thick with dialect and regional sayings, not to mention the problem of speed.

Occasionally I am able to jump into conversations. Granted the good fortune of gracious patience on part of English teachers, sometimes I am included as an active observer of conversation and even given a chance to include my own insight or some information about America relative to whatever topic is being discussed.

Last week the topic was getting a driver’s license. In America we dream of this moment, which comes when we turn 16, after a year of precise and cruel instruction on the part of your father who, no matter how angry he gets, is only trying to prevent you from killing yourself or anyone else in the future. Or at least that was my experience.

In China it is different. To have a car, one must have money. To have money, one must have a steady job. That’s why drivers are often beginning to drive when they are in their twenties or thirties. Many of the English department staff recently received their license, and their reflections on this process are vivid, if not understandably frustrating.

During this conversation I continually heard one phrase being used with contempt and so I asked about it. Both teachers looked at one another and tried to think of the English translation. “It’s something you do when you’re driving…no, not when you’re driving, when you’re going to stop driving.” I looked at her with a confused expression. “Like parking when one car is here and another car is here,” she explained, with a crude drawing to make things more clear.

“Oh! Parallel parking!” I exclaimed, happy to know that this was something we shared regardless of culture.

Evidently everyone dreaded this part of the test. But we all know that story.

When the teachers began talking of the licensing process I was drawn in further. The process is simple: Fail the test, fail the test, and then pass the test. The first test is free, so it would be silly if people merely passed it: they wouldn’t be contributing any money that way. As a result, the examination officer will find any excuse not to pass students, even if they are skilled drivers. Subsequent tests require a fee of somewhere between 250 and 300 yuan (I forgot the exact amount). Passing the second test is much easier because people had to pay money, but the examination officer will not hesitate to fail applicants if they do not perform well. The third test is like getting an honorary doctorate or being a big donor to a cause: there are special rights extended to these people. The examination suddenly becomes much easier. Provided that the examinee does not destroy any property or kill anyone during the test, they will pass.

When I asked them about this the teachers acknowledged that the process was corrupt, but that there was little they could do about it. It didn’t bother them because they have been playing this kind of game all their lives with guanxi. Private relationships are all about guanxi – who do you know, what can you get based on who you know? This elaborate system will continue when the people you know come calling on you for return favors. The entire system perpetuates itself because people feel obligated (as a manifestation of culture) to repay their guanxi debt. The licensing process is nothing more than public guanxi: you pay and we’ll give you what you need.

This issue runs deeper, with social problems such as bribery permeating all aspects of life (including college admission and elections).

So it may not matter how well one can parallel park if they make one other mistake during the examination. The examination official may ask them to keep driving around, waiting for the mistake they need to justify failure. Or it may be the 3rd testing round, after the examinee has jumped the curb and knocked over a garbage can, when the official calmly steps out of the car and hands the driver a certificate of passing.

Money, it seems, is sometimes more important than performance.


Water Monopoly (2)

Another student response:

"In my college there is a rule that we must drink the water which the name [xxxxxx]. Only this kind of water. We can't drink the water that we ever drink, so that most of students can't drink water for a long time. I think it's an unfair rule.

I think it's called monopolise. It breaks the laws in business. It also doesn't respect us students. It infringes upon our rights. I don't know why it happens. We complaint our college but we can't save it, so we just suffer it. The water of [xxxxxx] is expensive and bad, and the speed that send water is very slow.

Our college doesn't offer the hot water and the water is too cold to use, so we use the tiger [heater] to make the water hot. But one of the rules in my college is that we can't use the tiger [heater]. If the caretaker find we use it, he will confiscate it. I think it's unfair, either.

How can we defend our rights? Who can infringe upon our rights?"


Saving face. Losing face.

Face is perhaps the most misunderstood general concept in China. In fact, if you assume that everything I am about to write is actually the opposite of reality, you probably won't be an farther from the truth than if you accept it as is.

We are concerned about this idea of "face" in America as well, but our concern differs in both degree and aspect. For example, most Americans don't often work hard to protect other people from losing face. There are examples of when people will do so, but they are generally more extreme circumstances. After failing a test in America one might feel disappointed, a situation that might be regarded in China as a loss of face. This might also include loss of face for the family. In China, people who are part of the "in group" are likely to try to prevent this loss of face. The sibling of the child with the low mark might recommend that they throw the paper away before showing it to the family. The result of losing face will be a backlash against the child, who will need to study harder, focus more intently, and generally balance this loss of face with future successes.

The degree to which the Chinese concern themselves with face is very high and, consequently, somewhat ridiculous (to me, at least). If a student corrects me in class, I have "lost face." The class will become silent and awkward. If I say something that is culturally taboo, I might also lose face. Luckily these are the only two examples I know (there are actually thousands of ways). If I knew all of the ways I might feel embarrassed a lot more often. This way I can obliviously stomp through my daily life like an elephant (an elephant from a different culture, of course), losing face and making people lose face as I obliviously march ahead. I am a face taking machine. My students probably wonder if I will ever be civilized enough to understand face. I know that I won't.

If I were to create a loose definition of face, I wouldn't say that is is, "The front part of a person's head from the forehead to the chin, or the corresponding part in an animal."

Actually, it would be more like, "the credibility, respectability, and overall goodness of a person." I would probably include more random words to make the definition sound scientific, but right now I have limited time.

Tonight I lost face when I made one of my freshmen girls cry. She wanted to take her pronunciation test again, and I told her it was a risk: if she scored lower than her original test, I would give her the new, lower score. She agreed and took the test, receiving a lower score than the original.

She didn't want me to include the new score as part of her grade - she wanted the old score to stand. I finally agreed and added, "I'm too nice," sort of as a joke. She began to cry.

By the way, did I mention that this entire scene was being witnessed by 6 of my best students, who had been waiting for me in the office? So I lost some face because I wasn't careful about the situation. "Oh stop looking at me like that, I didn't want her to get upset," I told them jokingly after the girl left. So I lost some face because I was too direct about what just happened.

My existence is loss of face. I'm a face losing fool. It's too bad I can't donate it, because I never seem to have much face anyway. It's not that I don't care, I do. It's just that I don't really understand.


Year 2

China has been many things, and often I find it to be one giant contradiction. My first year in China was often unpleasant. Illnesses, cultural mishaps, a winter with teeth, and adjusting to a new job were each a part of my slow acculturation. There were days that I hated to be in China. There were days when I hated China. There were days when I just wanted to go home. On those days you feel every mile between yourself and home, believe me.

On a few occasions there were complete breakdowns, followed by phone calls home. I became a child again, talking to my parents about my problems and hoping that they would somehow make them go away.

Not only did the problems not go away, they found new ways of manifesting themselves in my life. Suddenly I was throwing up in the kitchen sink AND I had no running water. I am reminded of my cousin's upcoming wedding; the one that I can't attend.

One of my fellow volunteers and good friend summed it up best when he returned to the U.S. for medical leave:

"You are all amazing people and I am honored to have gotten to know you these past months. Your conversations, opinions, cooking, creativity, and lust for living meaningful lives has inspired and given hope to a broken, cynical shell-of-a-man (ie, me).

You should be proud to have survived this odyssey that is Peace Corps China. In many ways this experience is an exercise of attrition that only those with the most endurance (or dumb luck) can suffer through. You have done it. And though we may be the only ones who truly understand what that means, it is nonetheless a commendable accomplishment."

And often that's what it felt like to be in China.

But this year has been different.

This year is the promise of Obama, when compared with 8 years of a Bush presidency.

It began with continued understanding. The need to know what was going on around me and the desire to learn. Many behaviors have slowly been revealed in this way, but I want to point out one that might teach you something. It involves collectivism vs. individualism.

"Since individualists have to work at their relationships to maintain them, they tend to develop skills for effective superficial interaction with others" (Wheeler, Reis, and Bond, 1989).

One of my students' biggest unspoken complaints was my apparent unwillingness to make friends. To them my fleeting conversations were not a part of my cultural upbringing, but a kind of arrogance or inability to do so. Inability to make friends is probably close to the truth of the matter.

Look at it this way: Much separates Chinese people from Americans. Americans are independent where Chinese are collectivist. Americans want to stand out where Chinese want to belong. And what about the culture of poverty? How much of student behavior is determined by "Chinese Culture," or "Poverty," or some strange mix of both?!

Not only have I been trained to create an extensive list of 'superficial' (according to Chinese standards) friends, China makes it even more difficult by forcing me to navigate the great number of people! Not only were my students saying, "We wish you were a real friend who invested time in your friendship with us," but there were 4 times as many people saying it!

I'm afraid I haven't exactly "solved" this problem yet, but that's not really the point. What I want to explain is that continued work in this area has helped me tremendously. I know my students and colleagues much better than before. I am comfortable on the street and I know how to react in most situations. I haven't been ill since the spring. Several of my classes are subjects I've taught before, so I'm gaining experience in teaching at this level (especially pronunciation!).

Feeling better has helped me to be more committed, and being more committed has brought with it more respect and willingness to understand on the part of my students.

I don't have much of a moral here, just that Peace Corps was right when they said the second year was easier (and more fulfilling).

Wheeler, L., Reis, H. T., & Bond, M. H. (1989). Collectivism-individualism in everyday social life: The Middle Kingdom and the melting pot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57, 79-86


Water Monopoly! (or Where is Teddy Roosevelt When People Need Him?)

Students in the dorms don’t have clean drinking water or the ability to boil water for drinking. The result is the need for a water cooler and large water bottle delivery – a convenience now provided with a smile by the school. In the past students ordered water from off campus and it was delivered by the company. Someone at the school realized that the school could buy up the water, hold it, and deliver it to students at a higher price. People started calling the water company to have it delivered directly, rather than relying upon the school. The water company was met with resistance at the school gate, however, and was turned away. Since the school controls what goes in or out of the gate, they simply hold the needed resource until the students are forced to comply.

Many students realized what was happening, and they were very unhappy. So unhappy, in fact, that they called a reporter to report what was happening in the school. The outcome was grim. After meeting with a school leader the reporter told the students that nothing could be done. One student explained, “To my surprised, it is a socialist country, it serves the community? If I have a second change I don't choose to born here like the country.” These students are the very same who are caught between a fierce nationalist pride and a profound confusion at the policies of their own school. They understand that there are injustices, but the authorities here deflect most of this in a fairly creative way: “But look at all of the problems with this place or that place. Focus on this other incident. Look what happened over there!”

When this isn’t sufficient there is always the ability to simply not care about the students. After all, the students here have no idea what it means to protest. They don’t feel their egalitarian souls being stolen by someone stronger than they are. They have never tasted liberty on the same level as we have, and they haven’t been raised in a culture of protest, demanding equal rights, and fighting for principle alone. Despite living in a collectivist society, students, and people in general, are unaccustomed to fighting for what they see as an ultimately futile cause. There is also a lack of creativity. Despite having the foresight to call a reporter, they had no backup plan or understanding of the power that they possess.

As a volunteer here I am completely uninvolved in this process. It’s important that I don’t concern myself with these issues, specifically due to the rules governing my conduct here. Despite these restrictions, however, I am free to share what is happening here. So there you have it.


More Photos

More English school photos...

Rural School for Weekend Study

Yesterday I agreed to go with my student to the primary school where she teaches English on the weekends. We even planned a short lesson together. Enjoy the photos.


Student Writing

[removed for privacy]


Another Train Story

When we got on the train in Guiyang to go back to our sites I didn't expect to see foreigners. I never expect to see foreigners in Guizhou. Ever. But there they were, a large group of Americans, many of whom seemed to be Chinese-American. There looked to be about 30 late middle school or early high school age students. We caught several bits of conversation as we boarded the car next to theirs:

"Come over here, block that guy."
"Don't let her get through!"

They seemed to be experiencing difficulties as they were caught up in the push and shove that can only be appreciated by those who have become accustomed to such behavior. I would argue that I am a competent train-boarder, complete with my ability to let the ocean of people bump into me, breathe down my neck, and push their way to the front. I am not a stone in the river. I am the river.

We sat in our seats, but I couldn't stay for long. I needed to know why these foreigners were in Guizhou. Our Guizhou. Perhaps they had come for the waterfall.

I walked back to their car. It was a crowded car, with lost of people standing in the aisle (they bought standing tickets). Before I could inquire about their destination a girl began talking to herself loudly. "Don't tell me he's sitting in my seat, that's my seat, buddy, HEY, listen, this is my seat, not yours..."

It made me nervous. She was talking to him in English, but I'm sure her tone conveyed enough rudeness to make her and the Chinese man lose face. Of course, she was completely unaware that she had lost face. The other Americans were also unaware that their image was rapidly deteriorating in light of other similar incidents.

I watched as three American boys speaking a strange Mandarin Chinese yelled at a Chinese man who was sitting in their seat. It was strange because these boys spoke excellent Chinese and then, suddenly, they would change to English so that the other passengers didn't know what they were saying.

"This is our seat, look at this ticket!" one boy shouted in Chinese.
"I can stand here, it's a standing ticket," replied a Chinese man.
"He can't stand right by us, that's stupid," the boy said in English, and then, "let me see your ticket," in Mandarin.
"Look guys, his ticket doesn't even have a number, it's fake!" he shouted to his friends in English.
"Yeah, it's fake!" other students chimed in.

At this point I was thoroughly embarrassed. I was so embarrassed that my hands were shaking. It was easy to see that these boys had made the Chinese man lose face, and he was defending his right to stand in the aisle.

I decided to intervene.

"It's not fake; it's a standing ticket," I said.
"Then why is it more expensive than ours?" another boy asked accusingly.
"Probably because he's going farther than you," I responded.

It was awkward. This knowledge made me even more embarrassed. These students were yelling at good people. These were peasants and farmers just trying to get back to work - they couldn't even afford seats.

I turned to a girl who looked to be Chinese-American. "Listen, you should tell your friends to calm down. When someone is sitting in your seat, just say '不好意思了,我觉得你在我的坐位。‘ In China you need to be less direct, otherwise nobody is going to cooperate."

"Don't speak Chinese," she responded, "they will understand you." Then she looked away from me as if I was part of the problem they were having.

Never have I experienced such terrible behavior.

The American students continued to be rude and I decided that it was time to leave. I walked back to my car.

Later one of the American teachers passed and I flagged him down. "Where are you from? Who are those kids?"
"I teach at an International School in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) - those students are 8th graders. Most of them are Korean-Americans who have lived here for about 5 years. Their parents work in China at oil companies or in high tech fields," he said.

Terrie and I talked about it after he left.

"They have probably never been on a train before," she said.

Probably true.

These students who have lived in China for 5 times as long as me know less about how to interact with Chinese than I do. Me, with my terrible Chinese and my strange long hair.

As I'm writing this the incident is already two hours gone, but I'm still angry about it. I try to help maintain the image of Americans as good, hardworking, friendly people, and that picture is destroyed for an entire train-car of appalled Chinese passengers. No wonder I encounter such mixed feelings about foreigners in China.