Friday, July 3, 2009

Good-bye China

I’m finally getting around to doing the last blog post for Amy’s China Adventure. I’ve been home now for more than a week. It took about a week to get over the jetlag and reverse culture shock.

My final trip in China – to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui province – didn’t disappoint. Daisy and I took the cable car to the top of the mountain, stayed overnight and walked down the mountain the next day. Luckily, we managed to catch Huangshan’s famed sunrise, although we were told there was only a 40% chance we’d see it due to the weather. From start to finish, Huangshan was one big money grab, but the sunrise, the haunting mists and the spectacular views were worth it. And I can say that I got out into nature at least once in China! Actually I’m very proud of myself for undertaking the 2.5-hour trek down the mountain. I’ve never been an “outdoors girl”, but maybe that’s changing, if only a little. As I approach my 30s, I’m trying to incorporate more physical activity into my life. I enjoyed the hike down the mountain, though it killed my knees for the next few days.

At about 5 am, the sun emerges from Huangshan's famous mists

Beginning the hike down Huangshan

After Huangshan, the whirlwind of activity happened as predicted – along with sad good-byes – and within days of my final trip, I was home. Already, there are aspects of China I miss. Obviously, I don’t miss everything! I’ll use this final blog entry to reflect on the best and worst of my China Adventure.

First, the top 5 things I will not miss about China, many of which I’ve dealt with in past blog entries:

1. The staring: I forgot how nice it is to be able to walk around in public without becoming the main attraction. I am a laowai no more!
2. Lack of cleanliness: After five months, I can part ways with the omnipresent hand sanitizer. On the upside, after fighting off untold numbers of germs in China, my immune system has probably never been better!
3. Pollution: I have a renewed appreciation for Newfoundland’s unspoiled environment. The province may be known for RDF (rain, drizzle and fog), but at least when you see mist in the air, you know it’s… well, mist. Not something more toxic. I will lump the ever-present cigarette smoke into this category too.
4. The driving: It is really good to be back in a place where drivers stop at a crosswalk… or for that matter, a red light.
5. Line jumping: I don’t think any length of time in China could dull my annoyance at people who cut you off in line.

Too serious to put in a top-5 list is the lack of freedom. You can never really forget in China that the message is always tightly controlled by the Communist Party. There is no free press. You cannot access certain web sites (the number of which grew during my time there as the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square approached). I am happy to be back in the True North Strong and Free, where I can buy a copy of Prisoner of the State off the shelves (and I have). I am happy to soon be moving to the Land of the Free. No more anonymous proxy servers for skirting the Great Fire Wall. China is a land of contrasts and perhaps the biggest contrast of them all is the lack of political freedom coupled with a raging free enterprise economy. It is possible to see echoes of late-80s China in the situation that is unfolding in Iran – and I hope they are not on course for a Tiananmen Square type crackdown.

The frustrations of life in China comprised maybe 10% of my time there. It is hard to encapsulate the remaining 90% into five neat bullets – so I won’t. I have absolutely no regrets about walking away from an excellent job to make a life – albeit a temporary one – on the other side of the world. Life as an ESL teacher was more rewarding than I possibly could have imagined sitting in Newfoundland. I believe when I look back at my time in China years from now, certain memories and images will remain crystal clear. I’ll see the smiles of my Tuesday night Oral English students when I told them how proud I was of their progress. One of my favourite classes, I had no problem reminding them that during our first class together, I was constantly telling them to stop speaking Chinese! But by the end of the term, here they were... performing skits, speed dating and debating - all in English.

I’ll remember Andrea in that same Oral English class. Despite language and cultural differences, something about her reminded me of myself. One of the quieter ones, she blew me away with a poignant speech about how when she was a little girl, she’d only talk to her mother. And I remembered my mom telling me that when she took me to kids’ birthday parties, I wouldn’t leave her side. Andrea went on to describe the efforts she’s made to come out of her shell and get more confident. She said she never dreamed she’d be speaking to a class in English… kind of like how a little girl who couldn’t be left overnight at Brownie Camp never thought she’d be teaching English in China!

I’ll miss English Corner, both at the University and Web International English, my second job. I’ve talked about English Corner in several other blog posts.

I’ll also miss my Chinese lessons with Steve and Connie, though I’m continuing my Chinese study at home – and will make every effort to continue it in DC, though no doubt the demands of an MBA program will make that difficult. I have to keep my eye on the big picture. I’m about to do an MBA with a specialization in international business. China is the market to watch. Those who speak Chinese will have a huge advantage in international business. ChinesePod has been a phenomenal resource, though obviously it can’t beat the face-to-face interaction I had with my tutors. My Chinese language progress in China was far from linear. The first 3 months or so, my learning was very incremental, much to my frustration. But it’s like when May hit, things starting clicking into place. My conversational ability suddenly improved. On my last night in Changzhou, I had dinner with Steve and his family. His wife, Spring, only speaks Chinese. Previously, I hadn’t been able to understand anything Spring said – and I wasn’t able to say much to her. But things were different my last night. I definitely still needed Steve there as a translator, but I was able to understand more of what she said and, just as importantly, could make some comments back to her. Imagine if I was staying longer!

I’ll remember the little things too, like the walks back to my apartment after my evening classes. As a laowai, I found walking at night more enjoyable, as the darkness afforded some protection from the stares. Walking back to my apartment around 9 pm, I’d go past Market Street, where all the restaurants were still open. Couples would be sitting or strolling around, holding hands. People would fly past on bikes, sometimes with a friend perched precariously on the back, side saddle style. In good weather, guys would still be on the basketball courts. Turning the corner from Market Street, the hotel's giant, illuminated pen would come into view.

My home in China - at night the pen is brightly illuminated

My time in China confirmed what I started to suspect during my two terms in Europe during University: I love the international life! I love the lack of predictability. I love the challenge of adapting to a new way of doing things. I love getting on a train or a plane on the weekend and seeing another new place.

This is a complete about-face from the way I used to be. As a child, I hated change. I didn’t want our family to get a new car or move into a new house. I hated to be away from my parents. I was scared of everything from the dark to dogs, to speaking in class to the Thriller video (I have to pay homage somewhere in this post to my first favourite singer). Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve made a point to push myself outside my comfort zone - to live my "what ifs" - and China was the biggest stretch yet. It's scary to pack your bags and immerse yourself in a completely different culture, but for me the rewards far outweighed any initial culture shock.

China is not the end of my adventures. In less than a month, the next phase of my life begins as I move to Washington, DC to do my MBA at George Washington University. I hope you’ll follow me over to my new blog:

See you in the District.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Student Appreciation

"I want to express my thanks to you for bringing me so much happiness and knowledge."

So texted one of my students a few days ago, adding that she wanted to meet me to give me a gift. I expected to go home with a half-empty suitcase, having used up the tons of toiletries I brought with me. But that won't happen - I've lost track of the number of gifts I've received from students! I've been given jewellery, Chinese combs and traditional decorations. One student sang me a song and others gave me personal notes of thanks. I'll keep all of it forever.

One of my gifts bringing some colour to my apartment.

Exams are finished. Grading is finished. In marking, I ran into the foreign teacher dilemma. Apparently foreign teachers here are known for always giving high marks. Not me. In the end, I feel the students who deserved an "A", got an "A"; those who deserved a "C" got a "C". And a couple who truly didn't care and didn't do anything in the course got less than that.

On Friday, I met my friend Eva for the last time. I've mentioned Eva before. I first met her when she was in one of my classes at Web English. Eva is a Marketing Specialist and we hit it off immediately. She introduced me to some of her friends, who are also young professionals. The students at the University are great, but I'm happy to have met people in my own "life stage". I went clubbing with them last month and on Friday we played badminton in the new (and first-rate) sports facility in the northern part of Changzhou. After badminton, we had tea....with so many people, the conversation often slipped into Chinese, but that was ok. It helps me improve mine. Now the challenge is continuing to practice when I leave!

With Eva (to my left) and friends

In 24 hours I depart for my last trip in China. Along with a student, I'm going to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui province. It is said to be the most beautiful mountain in all of China, with breathtaking views. I'm sure there will be a flurry of activity when I return from Huangshan as I try to squeeze in last-minute visits with friends before heading to the airport on Monday. I may not have time for another post on this side of the world. If not, there will be a wrap-up post from home....

Zai jian.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

University Life

One of the questions I asked my Oral English students in their one-on-one interviews this week was "How is university different from high school?" Every student said that they have more freedom now than they did in high school.

Everything is relative. To an outsider like me, their university lives appear tightly controlled. University students here are very different from home. For one thing, despite being 18 to 22 years old, they are still treated like children by their parents and other authority figures. The maturity level is a good 3 to 4 years younger than it is as home - sometimes I feel like I'm teaching at the grade 9 or 10 level, rather than university. Say anything at all about dating or getting married and invariably they erupt into giggles. I had a good discussion going in one class about when someone was considered an adult in China. I had only a couple of students say 18. Most said that you're an adult when you graduate college, and a few went even farther, saying you're not an adult until you get married! (Which really should happen by your late 20s at the latest - I'm definitely approaching "old maid" territory.)

While college life in the west is often marked by parties and drinking, you can forget that here. The school gate closes at 10 pm and it's lights out by 11 pm. Try to go back to your dorm after 11 pm and you'll find the doors locked. Yes, they lock the students in. This disturbs me more than any other aspect of college life here. There are no fire escapes. The doors are locked. Apparently the threat posed by some student sneaking out to meet a boyfriend or girlfriend outweighs the risk of students dying in a fire. Students aren't allowed to have any appliances in their dorms, but still.... you can't control for everything.

Walking around campus on Friday and Saturday nights, you can look in classroom windows and see many heads bent over books. It doesn't seem like a lot of fun, but then again - it's not like I can't relate. In many ways, I feel like I inhabit some middle ground between the students and the foreign teachers here. In me, my students have probably met one of the few foreigners who rivalled their ratio of studying to socializing! Or at least until I got to business school, when the value of practice (over theory) and relationship building went up dramatically.

The students here don't appear to have much freedom, but as I said - everything is relative. University is a bastion of freedom compared to their grade school lives. They can go home on weekends. They can leave the school on weekdays as long as they're back by 10 pm. One senior student describes how her grade school life was basically lived in the classroom. Every minute was strictly controlled. She was either studying, eating, exercising (mandatory) or sleeping. After lights out, the teachers would listen at the dorms to make sure no one was talking. She was only allowed to go home to see her parents for what amounted to a few hours every month. This sounds a lot like prison to me.

A recent commentary in The Economist bemoans the "underworked" American child. Here is an excerpt:

"American parents have led grass-root protests against attempts to extend the school year into August or July, or to increase the amount of homework their little darlings have to do. They still find it hard to believe that all those Chinese students, beavering away at their books, will steal their children’s jobs."

Yes, there is room for reform. The amount of time American kids (i.e., North American kids) spend in school should be increased - to an extent. But not for one second would I trade our system for the one here. For one thing, "beavering away at their books" is not equal to engaging in discussion or creative thought. The school I teach at isn't considered great by Chinese standards, so perhaps my experience isn't reflective of China as a whole. I can just speak to what I see. The studying at this school appears to be mostly memorization. I've been told that even at the thesis level, most papers are copied from the Internet. For the most part, students have the same opinion on social issues and trot out the same lines (e.g., "Every coin has two sides"). I'm in the process of correcting culture exams and it is amazing how many answers (to opinion questions!) sound eerily the same. There may be a model system somewhere, but the Chinese educational system certainly isn't it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

River Town

I finally started reading River Town a few weeks ago. I'd never heard of it before coming to China, but apparently it's quite famous amongst ESL teachers in this country. It was written by Peter Hessler, a man who spent two years in the mid-90s teaching English in Sichuan province in central China. He and his colleague were the first foreigners in Fuling (the "village" of 200,000 or so where they taught) for 50 years. He says that they'd draw a crowd of about 30 whenever they went somewhere to eat. That makes my occasional annoying "hello" seem trivial.

I wish I'd started the book earlier. I'm finding it quite inspiring - particularly his commitment to learning Chinese. I admit to being jealous of any foreigner who can speak Chinese with reasonable fluency. As Ken noted in a post some time ago, Chinese is considered the fourth hardest language for an English speaker to learn. Yet it sounds like Hessler was able to converse with the locals within a few months. I am nowhere near that and that has been a barrier between me and Chinese society. I'm limited to speaking with those who can speak English. I can have simple (and I mean really simple - and slow) conversations with my tutors, but I get very shy about trying my Chinese in the general public. Actually, I haven't found the Chinese public particularly helpful in my Chinese learning. The blank stares, dialects and rapid-fire speech aren't exactly what a "newbie" needs. When I arrived, I understood 0% of what was said around me. Today, I'm probably still at a miserable 2 to 3%. It feels like an almost impenetrable language, which can be frustrating. Thankfully, there is Chinesepod... but that is a post for another day.

Maybe Peter Hessler is a genius or some sort of amazing polyglot. After all, the man did go to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. He even adopted a Chinese alter ego - Ho Wei - whom he kept separate from his western identity. Maybe if I'd been 爱米 (ài) more often, my Chinese ability would have taken off. Maybe! There are certainly days I feel "more Chinese" - perhaps I'm experiencing the beginnings of an alter ego. 爱米 puts her hair up (to better hide the laowai hair), carries an umbrella in the hot sun, can push her way onto a bus, steps out into the middle of traffic without a second thought, and walks slower, taking daintier steps. It helps that 爱米 happens to have a figure more like a Chinese woman! Amy, by contrast, is much more aloof from Chinese society. She wears her hair in full laowai curls, has the walk of a western businesswoman (i.e., a strut), has the iPod on at full blast to drown out any "hellos" or "laowai" remarks, and gets annoyed at the Chinese tendency to push (as pedestrians) and almost run people over (as drivers). Maybe it's my imagination, but I feel I'm stared at less when I'm 爱米.

I'm into my last few weeks here. I'm happy to be going home, but something tells me that if I was staying longer - a year or more - 爱米 might have started to prevail over Amy.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The 49th Parallel

As a work term student in Germany, I remember feeling indignant when a German colleague dared to suggest that Canada and the United States are very similar. No! We have a Prime Minister, not a President! We have universal healthcare! Like many Canadians, one of my biggest travel pet peeves was being mistaken for an American.

Now as an expat in China, I don’t just think the US and Canada are very similar; I think we’re exactly the same. We are just like the Americans and very similar to the Germans. It takes coming to a culture that is truly different to realize just how fundamentally the same we are on the “big picture” things that make a society and a culture – beliefs, values, customs. I no longer blink when a student asks me a question that starts with, “In America….?” And I can answer the question, even though I’m not American, because we’re practically the same. Of course we’re indistinguishable to the Chinese. We don’t even have the accent difference like the British or the Australians.

Almost all my fellow expats – those I’ve gotten to know the last few months – are American. I was the only Canadian in our orientation group in Shanghai. I’ve travelled with Americans. My fellow English teachers at Jiangsu Teachers’ University are all American. I’ve met precisely three Canadians in the last five months – one guy at a bar in Shanghai and two other teachers here in Changzhou. That’s it. When this country seems truly perplexing, when the laowai annoyances pile up, it’s the Americans I commiserate with. One of our countries may be a little more leftist than the other (a difference shrinking under the Obama administration), but we are basically the same.

After China, the next chapter of my life begins in the United States. I’m home for only about 5 weeks, and then I’m moving to DC to do my MBA. I got an email today about “International Orientation”, which starts on August 7, a full week before American students have their orientation. The email also noted that “international students provide rich diversity to our programs”. Now – I’ve had a good chuckle about my “international” status with a few Americans here. I can appreciate that I’m not American, and thus fall into the “international” category. But I ain’t bringing much diversity with me to DC. And I really hope this International Orientation doesn’t include mandatory seminars with titles like “Adapting to Life in America” or “How to Cope When English is Your Second Language.” On August 8 and 9, we have an organized trip to pick up household items, get a cell phone and other such things. Fantastic…. Having set up house in China, I’m not sure I can handle all the English-language signs.

Not only am I not expecting culture shock from DC, I already have a social network started there, thanks to two previous trips. Both times I’ve been in DC, I’ve left with a heavy heart, feeling more at home there than in NL.

Life below the 49th parallel begins in less than two months...

Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Least Favourite Word

I’ve decided my absolute least favourite word in Chinese is laowai, followed closely by the only slightly better waiguoren, which literally means “out-of-country person”. Both are Chinese for “foreigners” (See the Wikipedia entry on laowai here.)

Obviously at home we have the concept of "foreigner”. But in no way do we throw the term around like they do here. An example: I ordered lunch today at a campus restaurant, and when my food was ready, the waitress literally sang out “laowai!” – “foreigner!” Even in homogenous NL, can you imagine someone of a different race sitting in a restaurant and being called a “foreigner”? In NL, with its 98% white population (or more), who would dare make the presumption that, say, a black person or Asian person hadn’t actually been born in the province? There are many things I’ll miss about China, but being called a laowai isn’t one of them. To me, it’s the ultimate example of China’s lingering xenophobia – it draws a line in the sand. There is “us” and there is “them” and never the two shall mix.

For someone like me who loves diversity – who has travelled to 14 countries and met people from around the world – this alone is a deterrent to staying long term in China. I’ll take Washington, DC, thank you very much, home to many “foreigners”, not to mention a myriad of embassies and international organizations. Beijing and Shanghai are improving, but a third-tier city like Changzhou is not somewhere I could live for long. For everything I’ll miss about Changzhou, I’m ready to leave the stares, the laowai shouts and the annoying “hellos” behind in three weeks….

That’s another thing about being an expat in China. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t have someone saying “hello” to me. That might sound pretty harmless, but much depends on tone. I have no problem with a little kid or teenager seeing me, smiling and saying “hello”. I don’t like the half-taunting “hellos” I get from some people, usually young guys with their buddies. It’s like they’re trying to impress their friends by mocking the laowai. You might be German, French or another nationality…. it doesn’t matter. If you’re white, you get the annoying “hello”. In a bad mood, it leaves me fantasizing darkly about going up to random Asian people in North America and saying “ni hao”…. who cares if they’re Japanese? They look Asian, so they must speak Chinese. I’m also tempted to let loose some rapid-fire English that leaves them in shock. “Hello” is probably the only English word these people know, as I suspect the better educated don’t do it.

I try to understand all this and not let it bother me. If I was part of a race that had continuously inhabited an area for 5,000 years – with almost zero immigration and political leaders with a taste for xenophobia – then I might stare and call people laowai too. You can’t even begin to compare NL, although our overwhelmingly white population mirrors China’s Han Chinese population (and to be fair, we have our own version of laowai in the term “Come From Away”, though we hardly bandy it about as they do here). I think in NL, we’re still very much aware that we all come from immigrants. Just a few hundred years ago, most of our families were still in Ireland, England or Scotland. The oldest settlement in North America, and our 500 years are a mere blip next to China.

As China opens up, I wonder how it will look in the future. Surely, there will be more and more children born to expats in the bigger cities. They won’t be "out-of-country people", but will they still be called waiguoren? In 20, 30, 40 years, will laowai be a thing of the past? I hope so.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Please See Me

My culture students have no doubt come to hate those three little words.

Written across the top of their homework, “please see me” means that I’ve caught them copying – copying from the textbook, the Internet or another student. It doesn’t matter.

Copying is not such a straight-forward issue as it is as home. To be caught plagiarizing at home is the height of academic dishonesty. But in China? This is the land of knock-off everything. There isn’t an idea or product immune to being copied. Long before I came to China, I sat in business classes where the trade-off between China’s huge market and the risk of intellectual property infringement was discussed.

As a teacher, I made it clear at the beginning of the term that in my classes, you don’t copy. If I catch you copying, you either re-write it or don’t get credit for the assignment. Perhaps this is a quirky foreign teacher thing that they don’t have to contend with in any other classes. Frankly, I don’t care. I’ve told them I’d rather see a lot of mistakes than perfect essays that I know they didn’t write themselves. You can learn from mistakes. I try to establish proof of copying before accusing them of it, as I feel that’s a pretty serious accusation to make (or at least it would be at home). This usually isn’t difficult as they make almost no effort to cover their tracks. Sentences are copied word-for-word from the book. They apparently think I’ll believe they know a word like “superfluity”; I’ll get essays that some native speakers couldn’t write. Often, I can take sentences directly from their essays, type them into Google and voila – a Chinese website that supplies English essays!

I did this just last week and attached the print-out of the webpage to the student’s homework when I handed it back to stress how blatant the copying was. She came up to me at the break and started to cry, saying she’d been preparing for a big exam and had run out of time to write it herself. I’m fair – I don’t get mad at copiers, especially given the broad acceptance of it here. I always give them a second chance and say that I’m much more interested in their own ideas than in what a book or website says.

As the semester has worn on, I've made in-roads in the battle against copying. I’ll usually still catch 3 to 5 students (out of 40), but that is down from the 10 to 15 I had at the beginning of the term. An even bigger achievement? – the noticeable difference in both the quality and creativity of their essays, especially in the last round I corrected. I make an effort to assign essay questions that require original thought – questions to which there is no right or wrong answer. This differs completely from the rote memorization they’re used to. For instance, we’ve been studying Australia the last few weeks, and my latest homework assignment (and the last for the term) asked them to imagine that it’s the early 1800s and they are prisoners in the Australian penal colony. They were simply told to write a letter to their family at home, describing life in their new home. I haven’t corrected the papers yet, but I’m anticipating some interesting responses. Based on what I've seen in skits and presentations, I suspect some of these kids are very creative - they've just had it squashed out of them by a system that only cares about memorization and test-taking ability. And that saddens me.