A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Truth (with Jokes)

Well, I was just reading this morning about a new book out by Al Franken called nothing other than The Truth (with Jokes). Now, I never read Lies, so I guess I don’t have any clue how his new book is, but I will admit that political satire is up my alley. In any case, I think it’s the book my students are looking for…

Yesterday, while teaching about the Civil War, I got into an interesting conversation with my students. Last week in my American Culture and Society class, we had a guest speaker—another Yunnan University professor, Aaliyah—to teach us about African American History and Culture. During her lecture, she mentioned briefly the Civil War, focusing mainly on the emancipation of the slaves. One of my more curious and bold students asked her why the slaves were freed. Aaliyah said something to the effect of “I like to think that it came from a general consensus that slavery was wrong.” Wishful thinking in my opinion.

So, yesterday, I decided to add some more information about the Civil War, including a discussion of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Now, most Chinese people know who Abe Lincoln is, and they also know that he ended slavery. Telling them that the Emancipation Proclamation actually only freed the slaves in the South (where he didn’t even have power) was a new one for them. I suggested that at the time, the more immediate reason for him freeing the slaves was more to create chaos than because he disliked slavery. “What a smart man!” they said.

Then I asked if there were any questions. One of my students seemed confused. “How can Aaliyah give us one reason and you another? Isn’t there like a book or something that you can just go to that tells you the right answer?” I was taken aback. How could I even begin to respond to that question?!

Americans are taught from a young age a) to always be critical, always, and b) that there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T. Everyone is biased in some way, so to some extent, anything that anybody says must be taken with a grain of salt. The Chinese, on the other hand, are not taught critical thinking until graduate school (and this is not an exaggeration!!!!). For the Chinese, learning equals memorization. The government also plays a large role in directing the curriculum, and so there are official books on many subjects—it’s a convenient way to keep China’s large population under control and keep the Communist Party in power.

Seriously though, in China, history is so black and white. Take for example the historical treatment of Chairman Mao. Deng XiaoPing, a party official who started China on the path of glasnost and economic reform declared that, “Mao was 70% right, and 30% wrong.” I triple-dog dare you to try telling a Chinese person that Mao was 75% right and see what happens.

My next thought, then, is ‘how do I express this without openly criticizing the Chinese government in front of my students?’ The best I could do after recovering from my original shock was “cultural differences.” “In the US,” I said, “we believe that there are usually many reasons, and that one person may say one thing, and somebody else might say something else, and that’s okay. Each of them are probably right in their own little way, and the truth is probably somewhere in between.”

They weren’t biting.

“Okay, let’s take the Nanjing Massacre for example.” I hoped I wasn’t getting into too dangerous territory, but I wanted an example they could all understand. “In Japan,” I explained, “some, NOT ALL, but some government-approved textbooks downplay or even ignore war atrocities committed during WWII. But, does that mean that Nanjing didn’t happen.”

A resounding “NO!”

“Okay, so the Chinese say that it happened, and that a certain number of people died. The Japanese might admit that it happened, but they admit to their own number of deaths. The Americans, who had reporters there, had there own death toll. Which one is right?”

“The Chinese number.”

“Then why are there three different numbers? If one is right, shouldn’t they all be the same then? The point is, we don’t know which one is right, and the fact of the matter is, none of them probably are, although some guesses are better than others.”

There were looks of sudden realization on several faces. It was probably one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had as a teacher.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Swing Cabs

Wow, it’s been 21 days (three whole weeks?!) since my last post. I simultaneously find that hard to believe and not so hard to believe. I guess I’ve just been so busy plugging along I hadn’t noticed the time passing away. But I’m here now—the only problem is that I can’t seem to remember what happened three weeks ago.

So, I suppose we can start with last last Monday (that is to say the 10th of October), as that is when things got interesting. Mondays are my longest days out at the YangPu campus—I teach for four hours in the morning and then two hours in the afternoon. The catch is that the two hours in the afternoon are from 4:30-6:30PM. This means that between 12:30-4:30PM I don’t really have anything to do. Well, I try to grade, I guess, but sometimes I am more successful at that than other times.

That is especially true now that the university is providing me a dorm room to stay in for the four hours during the afternoon. They say that the siesta is so ingrained into Mexican culture that it cost Santa Ana the Mexican-American War (they had apparently surrounded a large part of the American army, but instead of going in to finish the job, they took a siesta and the army escaped, regrouped, and captured Santa Ana), but it’s also an important part of the Chinese tradition. Believe me, you only call once at 1:30PM before you learn that lesson. I actually really appreciate having the break though, and I think it’s cool that the university actually provides me a bed because they think it is so important. I also find it refreshing to be in the dorms there. They are actually quite nice, and designed for only four people in a room, so it reminds me very much of my life in Taiwan which I enjoyed very much.

But I have surprisingly digressed. That Monday was the first day I got to go sleep at YangPu, but it turned out that I needn’t really have stayed there that afternoon. In fact, the first years had a basketball tournament organized for that afternoon starting at 5:30PM in which about half of my afternoon class was participating. Basically, when I asked who was staying for class, one girl raised her hand, so I said fine, taught them an English cheer (it is my Oral English class after all), and I made them all go to the tournament and do the cheer. Unfortunately, our department’s team lost fairly thoroughly, but I also got to see some of my students from last year who are now in other majors so I don’t see anymore. That made me happy.

Well, one of those students happens to be the president of the Foreign Languages Association, one of the largest clubs on campus. His English name is Sean, and you might or might not remember him from one of my posts last December A Week to be Reckoned With--to summarize, he’s one of my students who I would consider a friend. We chatted for a bit, and I gave him my new phone number. Lo and behold, Thursday rolls around and I get a call from none other than Sean asking if I wanted to go to lunch with him as he was on the main campus. I accepted thinking we would just be catching up or some such thing. I should have been more wary.

After ordering our food at a cute little Thai place on Culture Alley, pretty much the first thing out of his mouth was, “I came to the main campus on an urgent mission.” I braced as I knew he was about to ask me for a favor. Turns out that the next day the university was having what was essentially an activities fair for the clubs on campus with an accompanying performance. The Foreign Languages Association had prepared a performance, but it was entirely with students from the YangPu campus. The leader of the YangPu campus had called him that morning to inform him that, in the end, they would not be allowing those students to go into the main campus the next day, and that if they did try to go, they would all get demerits! There was apparently no reasoning with the leadership, and is just another example of how arbitrary decisions in China are. They had previously said that it wouldn’t be a problem.

So, it’s the day before the performance (which turned out to be a competition), and his group was without a performance. This is where I came in. He basically asked me what I could put together in 24 hours, nevermind I had four hours of class that afternoon/evening. I nevertheless told him I could help, as he seemed to be in a real pickle. So, that afternoon I spent calling friends, and I finally got Chesa to agree to do a swing dance with me. Sean, in turn, called around and found us backup dancers.

That night I felt like Hermione Granger with the clock thing because I somehow managed to be in three places at once. At 7:30PM I put on a movie for my students (My Big Fat Greek Wedding :o) ), and went downstairs to go teach my backup dancers how to swing. Of course, Chesa was actually teaching at the time, so she could only practice during her breaks. So, at 8:50PM we went up to her classroom and decided to perform for her students. I then raced back downstairs with my students to reclaim our practice room and hurried upstairs to my class to find the movie just ending. I then led a fifteen minute discussion on the movie before returning downstairs to finish practice with the backup dancers. It was a crazy night, but it made me feel powerful in that “I am omnipotent and can bend time to my will” sort of a way.

The next day the performance went surprisingly well, and in the end, it turned out that we won the competition if you can believe it. Now, I think that it was probably just because we were laowai that we won, but at least I enjoyed myself. The backup dancers also want me to start a swing club on campus. Yikes! The three funny things about the day were a) one of the backup dancers went up to Aaliyah (another foreign teacher here at Yunda from DC who happens to be African American) and asked, “how do you make your hair?” b) On several occasions I had different Chinese people come up to me and say “I’ve only ever seen that dance in the movies!” And c) in the program our performance was listed as “Swing Cabs.” I had told Sean over the phone that it was supposed to be “Swing Kids” (à la the movie of the same name). It makes you wonder exactly what movies they’ve seen swing in, as it apparently wasn’t that one ;o).

That night we went to dinner, and in continuing my tradition with Sean, had a truly, ahem, unique dinner. No pig brain this time, but we did have pig stomach (Surprisingly good. I actually think I prefer it over the intestines), and pig feet (again, surprisingly good). The ensuing conversation about weird foodstuffs, however, was slightly disconcerting, and believe me, you don’t even want to know.

As we won, we did the performance again this week on the YangPu campus. Unfortunately, it didn’t go as well, but at least we had fun!

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Scenes from an ATM

The Automatic Teller Machine machine, as people are so fond of calling it (ATM machine), is something Americans take for granted. In the US they’re ubiquitous to the point of absurdity. Case in point: drive-up ATMs have Braille for the sight impaired. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’d want to be in that car!

China is, of course, a different story. Not only are ATMs less abundant, but people are also less exposed to them. Fewer machines and four times the population of the US, you do the math. Of course, this results in fun times for Jeff at the ATM, and stories for you. So maybe it’s worth it.

A few weeks ago I was a little short on cash, so I decided to head over to my local Bank of China to ameliorate that situation. When I arrived at the little ATM in front of the bank I faced a short line of people. Now, given the lack of ATMs around, this isn’t so surprising in and of itself. Except for the fact that lines themselves are a rarity in China. Mobs are the norm, with people vying to keep their position at all costs, even if it is ultimately lost to the vicious old ladies who are a force to be reckoned with. So, I guess you could say that I was happy with the line, except that it a) meant waiting, and b) was formed so the next person was just to your side and easily able to look at your Personal Identification Number Number, or PIN number (which is six digits in China, FYI). Baby steps, baby steps.

Being the third or fourth person in line (I couldn’t tell if two girls standing talking together were both going to use the machine, or if one was just along for moral support), I wasn’t expecting a long wait. But then, it’s China. The man that was using the ATM as I arrived was busy taking out thousands of RMB from several accounts. He would stick in his card, enter his PIN, check the balance, take out the limit of 2000 yuan (about US$250), get the money, look side to side then stuff it hastily into his wallet, decide if he wanted a receipt, figure out he didn’t, and finally removed the card. He did this with two cards while I was there, and I think that he had already been at it a while when I first arrived. All I can say is, China is still a cash economy, and he’s probably going out to make some big purchase and needed all the money. He did look a little paranoid though.

Then it was time for the two girls. They looked like they were probably college-aged, or thereabouts, and in any case, had that wide-eyed-deer-in-a-headlight look so common among college first years worldwide. It turned out only one needed to withdraw cash, and that the other WAS there for moral support…and believe me, the first girl needed it. It was when she walked up to the machine and carefully tried to stick her card in the money slot that I realized this was going to take a while. After that was unsuccessful, she tried the receipt slot, and finally the card slot. Alas, she had put it in backwards and so the machine rejected it. She turned to her friend in desperation. The friend walked over embarrassedly though you could tell she was laughing on the inside. She took the card from her friend and very authoritatively put the card in the receipt slot. I rolled my eyes. Now they were both desperate. Turning around only to be faced with a dreaded laowai, the friend hurried quickly around me asking the Chinese behind me if they could help. They gave careful instructions to no avail. Sensing that they were getting nowhere, I went up to the machine and asked if I could help, turned the card the correct way and put it in the card slot, problem solved.

Or not. She managed to make it through the next step, which is choosing either Chinese or English, but hit a dead end at her PIN number. She tried a number. It wasn’t right. She tried it again. Still didn’t work. In vain she took out her cell phone and called, and I’m guessing here, home trying to figure it out. Having heard the same PIN from the other end of the line, and insisting that she was trying that exact number, she hung up dejectedly and took out her card. With bright red cheeks, she turned away from the ATM, apologizing to everyone with a “不好意思” (bu hao yi si, or, I’m so embarrassed).

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