Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tianjin Explorations

I thought it would be proper to explore my new town, so here are some pictures of the Nankai district in Tianjin. Here you can visit Tianjin's TV tower, as well as Tianjin's water park ("shui shang gong yuan"):

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

China: A Lesson in Cultural Sensitivity

“A friend once told me that, if you ever want to complain, you should do so with a foreigner.”

This was what Ryan, another foreign teacher, had to say to me over dinner last night. We touched on a series of issues which I think touch every foreigner’s life in China; and not just China, but other countries as well. These are the issues which could be subsumed under the heading of “culture shock”; such issues as privacy, and social norms for human interaction and relationships.

Back to Ryan’s comment – we both agree that “complaining” about one’s shortcomings towards a native isn’t a very fruitful action, and for a number of reasons. First, it seems that China has this over abundance of national pride which can be felt in almost all Chinese. I believe this is owed to a number of reasons itself; I think it is a “natural” outcome for a communist country, considering that, in the 20th century, many communist states actively pursued propagandist tactics and did whatever else they could to maintain their credibility; China should be proud of its heritage, given the fact that China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world; people naturally feel an affinity towards their nation, as if the nation is part of them.

This last point is interesting in that it also affects me (I believe). Normally I tend not to follow the wave of patriotism in America – flag flying, flag decals on vehicles, Civil War reenactments, etc. However, in times that I have encountered criticism of my country from my foreign friends back home, I do find myself feeling somewhat offended and “having” to defend my country. Again, it’s as if I am having to defend who I am and everything which stands for me. After all, all that is America – football games, a bowl of cereal, Thanksgiving, barbeque, Texas – comprise my childhood background and are the elements of my life.

Ryan had asked himself if he were doing himself an injustice by holding back on his comments of Chinese society and life in Tianjin; or if he were doing the correct thing by glossing over (“sugarcoating”) his thoughts as he expressed them towards his Chinese students and friends. Ryan (as well as me) is a firm believer in being true to oneself – that you shouldn’t put on an “act” for others. However, I do admit, I often give into self-monitoring and social norms. In other words, I end up acting a certain way to please others in a given moment, despite the truth that it doesn’t accurately represent my personality and views on life.

With that said though, I think it is a natural outcome that we should feel the need to take on different roles for different people. As Anthropology and life experience have shown me, our “self” – the person who we perceive ourselves to be – is a concoction of others. In other terms, your self-definition is not only defined by you, but it is also defined by the people with whom you associate and spend most of your time. You know, if enough people tell you that your Elvis Presley, you might begin to believe that you really are (maybe not, but you might for a second play with the idea).

Marc often cites Jean-Paul Sartre on this very issue; that often times, “people can be hell.” I’m sure many of you often dislike that feeling of not being at liberty to express your feelings or thoughts around certain people. You almost feel as if others are trying to “control” you and your behavior.

However, in the case of being a foreigner in China, there really isn’t anyone specific who is “controlling” you, but it is you who is controlling your actions and beliefs. When you are in a foreign environment, you no longer have familiar ques to guide your reactions towards others’ behavior, because first of all, the behavior itself is different. Second, you can’t really guess how others will react to your reaction. So, if you have any sensibility, you’ll put the brakes on some of your immediate responses towards others.

I failed to mention that our self-definition is also the result of an inherited culture and history at birth; that being American already defines your core (who you are). I know this is an obvious statement – I was born in America, so of course I’m American. But, I think a lot of times the “obvious” becomes somewhat obscured by its everyday presence. It’s like thinking about walking when you are walking; no one really has to think about it anymore, because it becomes “second nature.”

I think this is exactly what gets a lot of people in trouble, especially when they are caught in a foreign environment. When you finally realize that you are “no longer in Kansas anymore,” wow – you better watch out! It begins to play tricks with your thinking and emotions. I think this is what causes the “U-shape” emotional experience that most people warn you against before you leave for another country. That is, in the beginning, everything is exciting and new, but once you have hit a routine, you find yourself in a slump. Little things start to annoy and irritate you; such as the way people walk, how they smile, the way they dress and comb their hair, how they eat their meals.

You no longer allow room for cultural sensitivity. Rather, you become too quick to judge others and their actions. You ask yourself, “why can’t they just do it right?” Well, what exactly is “right”? I think the lines do become blurred between “right” and “wrong” when you give space for cultural differences. This is actually an ongoing debate in the field of Anthropology, especially in terms of foreign intervention. When should an Anthropologist step in and say, “Hey, I think what you are doing as a cultural practice is incorrect and a harm to society”?

It truly is a challenge to remain level-headed and to maintain a sensitive approach towards other cultures. You know, we throw this word around – “culture” – as if we know exactly what it means. Well, I will be the first to admit that I can’t really describe this word or accurately define it for you (another Anthropological dilemma). And, even with a scholastic background in culture and in the field of Anthropology, I often find myself bewildered with Chinese social habits; what’s more, I want to easily denounce some of these habits as “ignorant” or “completely unnecessary.”

Of course, this is too rash of a decision for someone like me who hopes to better understand others. What’s more, this leads to a lot of the misunderstandings which people have for one another. As my students have said in class, “with the rise of technology, the world is smaller and smaller.” Contact with other countries is more real now and quite uncomfortably close. It’s like our technology is undoing the work of tectonic forces. All of the countries are coming back together – man is playing his global puzzle and each country is just one piece of the puzzle. If we wish to avoid tearing off the artwork of each puzzle piece, we have to be culturally more sensitive.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Teaching Rollercoaster

I have a lot to say for my experiences over the past week. As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, I took part in my school’s English speaking competition as a judge. To say the very least, it was very entertaining and enjoying. I was surprised by the speaking abilities of some of the contests. Actually, I feel that they all could, more or less, carry on a conversation. Of course, they still need work with their pronunciation in much the same way that I need more work with my tones.

What the contest highlighted for me once more is the influence the West has had all over the world. It is an understatement to simply say that the West has been important in the last century. The fact that all Chinese, since primary school, have had English as a compulsory course reflects the role of the West in business, development and international relations.

However, I wonder what language might be the next important? Brian and I had talked about this once before. All other countries’ people are expected to learn English in school. Well, what about English-speaking countries such as the U.S., England and Australia? What language should we be expected to study and learn? Spanish? Chinese?

I thought this would be a good question to ask one of the contestants in the competition. Well, the result wasn’t so profound or intellectually stimulating; I’m not sure if this is due to the limits of speaking English, or if most students in China lack critical thinking (this is what Ryan, Sean and Mr. Brown assume). As for me, I know no question has a simple answer (pun unintended), and I’m sure that some students are bright, whereas other students still need development in their thinking. Of course, the contestant said Chinese should be the language for English-speakers to study, but I don’t really remember what else she had to say (it was either spoken to slowly or in chopped-up thoughts that I could not follow).

It’s not that I have a negative attitude or disinterest in my or other students at school, but I’ve noticed that lately, my mind has been wandering. For example, yesterday in class, my students gave a presentation on technology and development. I have to say, I was really ecstatic to see the first class’ performance; one group even made a PowerPoint presentation with pictures! However, the remaining two classes sort of just trailed downhill, reaching the bottom of no creativity. At that point, I remember sort of just gazing into “no man’s land.” I was asking myself if I have failed as a teacher, as well as evaluating my first semester’s performance. I wanted to know what I had done wrong and what I could do to improve my teaching for the next term.

I think I need to completely change the structure of my class, and have it more presentation-based. Although the presentations were mixed in their success, they did force the students to stand in front of the class and speak English.

1. My classes can have 10 presentations, which will be their grade

I don’t think I will give exams or writing assignments like I did this semester.

1. With exams, some students will only come to class on exam day

2. I lack a T.A., so I am stuck doing all the grading myself (it really sucks!)

I think I was a little ambitious with the mid-term. I had my students not only do an oral exam, but I also had them answer 10 reading/listening questions. In hindsight, emphasizing writing was a poor move on my part. After all, my classes are “Oral English” and the students already have other classes that focus on writing. However, my decision came after discovering my students’ reluctance to speak English in class. I also figured that, if their writing were to improve out of continuous practice, it would somehow enhance their ability to speak as well. Well, I’m not so sure that this was such great thinking…

As Liu lao shi said, teaching is one of the most (well, I think he said the most) challenging professions. I believe this, given the human dynamic of teaching. After all, you are not working with inanimate objects, but students who are complex individual thinkers. These students have different needs; their motivations are different. With that, you still need to find a method to encourage/motivate them all, and have some kind of meaningful impact on their lives.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Joys and Challenges of Teaching

Yesterday was another high point in my experiences thus far in China. My school hosted an English speaking contest for students of all majors. Naturally, several students from the English department participated, along with students from International Accounting.

Normally, I go to my school twice a week to teach my classes. When I am not teaching, I usually stay within the city's boundaries, either spending time at the main campus, or staying with Lily's parents (on the weekends).

As a result, the time I have with my students is very limited, unless I decide to go out of my way to make the 1 hour trip to my school even on non-teaching days. Not to mention, most of my students have busy schedules, so they would only be able to meet up with me during certain times of the day.

However, yesterday's English competition allowed me to spend the afternoon and late evening at school, where I was able to meet with my students outside of class. My school asked if I could be a judge in their competition; they said they'd provide transportation back to the main campus after the competition was over.

I took this opportunity to invite as many students as I could for dinner. A few of my students who regularly see me -- Anthony and Christina -- also helped to arrange our dinner. It was one of the greatest moments as a teacher -- to be able to develop a closer/stronger connection with my students. At the table, we ended up having 10 students show up for dinner! I was oozing with joy and excitement.

As most of you know, although I can be a selfish person at times, one of the greatest joys in life for me is to see others happy and in harmony. One of the best moments is when all of my friends can come together in harmony, when we all can enjoy each other's company. This has to be one of the best characteristics of China; most of my students know each other, and they are all very good friends with each other. So, I was able to invite several students from some of my 6 classes, and it was more like a reunion between friends :)

Although some of them were shy, most of them seemed happy to see me outside of my role as "teacher." You know, I am a down-to-Earth guy and I have repeatedly told them that this job is more than just teaching and giving grades. They too wish to develop a friendship with me, one that can lead to a greater relationship between the U.S. and China.

I want to leave an imprint on their lives, though this goal is quite ambitious. However, with a genuine smile and an outgoing/happy personality, I think I can make life a little different for my students. Some of them have already asked me about the future of my teaching and stay in China. They were happy to hear that I would be in China for another semester to teach :)

I never thought that it would become this way, but I too have developed a strong attachment for my students. I even began considering a contract extension, so that I could stay on board for another year...

I think this might be one of the hardest aspects of teaching. Each year, you are given a new set of students, some good and some bad. However, indifferent to your feelings and attachment to your students, you are forced to say "goodbye" each year to the ones you have taught and enjoyed.

For the moment, my students have sort of become my "family," a family that I don't want to see disunited. Cathy and Nadia, the other foreign teachers, have also developed this feeling for their students. The good moments seem to come and go too quickly. We all wish that we had more time with our students this year.

I'm not really sure what the future will be of my schedule, and I am not sure if I will be teaching the same students next year. However, this is something which I hope for with all of my heart. This I realized as we passed the food around the table; when I felt a stronger connection with my students...

I'll write more on the competition in my next blog.