Since coming to China I have become a different person. Although there are many factors that contributed to the changes, one of the most distinct was my need to look at things differently. This resulted in a need to be more hesitant about forming opinions. It has also led to intense reflection and contemplation. Even if I know little about this deep culture and its people, I am honest with myself (and with all of you). Honest reflection and slowing judgment have helped me to adapt in a culture where a ‘no’ might mean ‘maybe’ or a ‘yes’ might really be a ‘no way.’
During my first year, if there was frustration aside from student propensity to be indirect, it would be the lack of praise. I’m fairly average, so I don’t expect people to shower me with undeserved praise. In fact, I don’t think praise should be given unless it is earned fairly through hard work or unique talent. This talk about praise likely seems a little strange. I mean, really, what’s the big deal?
Let me ask another question: Can you imagine what life would be like with no praise? Mark Twain once said that he could live a month on a good compliment, but how long do we go in our daily lives without receiving some kind of reinforcement for the little and big things that we do? What if I were to tell you I have been generally “praised” but students fewer than 5 times since arriving in China?
Part of this is language, but most of it is cultural. The students have no idea how much our culture is based on a certain level of genuine praise, probably because they are so focused on doing their duty. That’s what I am doing, in their eyes: my duty. If I fulfill that duty, that is its own reward – right?
Triandis (1995) says that
“[Individualists] have an unusually good opinion of themselves and have a need to express their high self-esteem. Their apparent arrogance is a reflection of the culture.”
I think we have a need to be recognized for what we do, even if that recognition comes in the form of only a few kind words.
I didn't much think of this issue until I tried to think of how my students saw me as a teacher. Did they like me? Did they enjoy my class? I had almost no idea.
When studying Chinese with my students last year, we came across the word 傲慢，which translates as “haughty,” or “arrogant.” I jokingly said, “有时我一点傲慢,”or, “Sometimes I am a bit arrogant.” One of my students immediately replied in English, “Yes, you are,” with a tone of sincerity and a laugh that was a little too uncomfortable to overlook. She was serious.
I have often wondered what goes through the students’ brains in my classes and what they think of my teaching. This vague image has changed very little since I first arrived. My cloudy understanding of student perception is also tied to the differences in language and culture.
The small amount of information I have about my students is through a filtered network of gossip that began after I gave a lecture about Special Education in America. Students began to talk about how I taught young children with behavior disabilities in America, and that, therefore, I taught my Chinese students in the same way. The viciousness and unrelenting force of rumors like these make China a dangerous place to make mistakes. Say one bad word in class and you like to swear. Make one mistake and you are incompetent. Once again ‘face’ rears its ugly…head?
I never tried to look down on my students. Asserting that my students and I were the same, separated by culture, I found a place for my thoughts to grow. But the daily grind of English classes leaves an interminable trail of broken sentence structures, forgotten grammar, over generalized Chinglish, and improperly memorized proverbs that leave them sounding like a kindergarten student trapped in a young adult’s body.
I don’t doubt that I have seemed arrogant to them. Nor do I doubt that an independent American observer would give me a long list of small things that I do to slightly alienate or damage relationships with my students. My reasons for accepting that these conditions exist is not because I can think back and remember any, but because listening to broken, poor English day after day changes your perceptions about people. I never did this consciously, nor do I know the extent of my failure to treat people as equals.
Mr. Yang said something in an interview that made me reflect on my own battle against the dangerous notion of superiority:
“I don’t know how to put it. Sometimes I’m very modest. Sometimes I’m so proud – I think I’m the only intelligent guy in this department. That’s stupid, I know! The important lesson is that you may think you are very intelligent, but sometimes people around you are more intelligent than you. The only reason you find yourself intelligent is that you didn’t even cast your eyes on them – you didn’t pay attention to them.”
Though I am not much wiser since coming to China, I am certainly more careful about certain things. Too many times I have cared too much what others think of my classes or me. There is a healthy level of forgetting and moving on that everyone needs to foster when they live here. It’s a lot like getting a sense of humor, and just as painful at first.
When I look back on this experience in the future, and reflect how it has changed me, the Chinese lessons, culture shocks, failures, and successes will not compare with this new longing for honest reflection.
Triandis, H.C. (1995). Individualism and Collectivism (p.158). Westview Press: Boulder.