"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A few comments…

…ON KARAOKE. I may start a karaoke revolution when I return home. I recently went with a group of students to “KTV,” a Chinese karaoke chain, which felt more like a karaoke hotel than a karaoke bar. It’s all very fancy, with a main hall and several small private rooms, to where the waitresses or hosts or whatever they’re called guided us. It’s different than how I imagine a karaoke bar in the U.S. (though I don’t believe I’ve ever visited one), where you’re potentially singing in front of strangers. Here, each private room has couches, a mini-stage, a large video screen for music videos and lyrics, and a computer to pick songs and set a song list.

And the whole thing is a blast. What makes it work is that everyone goes all out and doesn’t mind looking foolish. The students (both those present and those I’ve observed at various school karaoke functions) are pretty uninhibited, willing to perform for their peers regardless of their vocal level. For as shy as students can be here, this has surprised me. So for me, the more I play it up, singing extravagantly, gesturing, even prancing around, the more fun everyone has. You take away from the group experience by being too self-conscious. I just have a hard time imagining going out with my friends back home to karaoke and really diving into the experience; I think we’d all feel a bit “above” it, too cool, or perhaps just afraid of looking foolish. But how fun it is to be a fool! Whether singing “Beautiful Day” (U2), “Hero” (Mariah Carey), “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (MJ), or a handful of Chinese songs—the more abandon, the richer the experience. There’s a more broadly-applicable truth in that, I think.

…ON THE COMING OF WINTER. We were blessed with a couple days of snow in mid-November, signaling (in my world) the arrival of Christmas. At least, I permitted myself to start playing the Vince Guaraldi Trio to welcome in the holiday season. It usually only snows about one day a year in Xiaogan, so we’ve either had our one day early or may just see a more snowy winter. Anyway, it was a nice experience that took me to that bittersweet nostalgic place and also reminded me that, sadly, this will by my first Christmas away from home. So it goes. One can’t have it all…a begrudgingly-written admission for someone with many dreams and desires—many of them often in conflict. At least when Joann arrives in a week (!!!), I’ll have a special piece of home with me; I sure hope she brings me some Starbucks Christmas Blend. I mean, her love and affection is nice. But, coffee beans are nice too. But, whatever. But, beans.

…ON MY RECENT “FIELD TRIP.” The greatness of this trip was felt in watching my students’ sense of awe and gratitude for the whole experience. I took 17 freshman students to Shuang Feng Shan, a mountain range about 50 minutes outside of Xiaogan. We spent the day wandering a series of trails that led along creeks, up hills, past old ruins of battlements from past dynasties, and several temples. It really is a holy place, not just because of the places of prayer but because of its natural majesty. And in contrast with the loud and rather dirty Xiaogan, the freshness of the air, the clearness of the water, the scope and grandeur of the mountains, and the stillness all around made it a spiritual experience, even for my students (though they probably wouldn’t have identified it as such). It was a great time of connection, complete with snowball fights with what was left from the recent snowfall and with a lovely communal style of eating, where everyone brings snacks intending to share with others. Every ten minutes or so I was offered some new strange cookie or biscuit or nut or pseudo-fruity substance. It’s really touching the way they do it.

But the most poignant moment came when, upon seeing how tired some of my students were, I suggested we head back to the base to await our bus and relax. The outcry was unanimous. Everyone insisted we wander and explore until the last minute of our allotted time, regardless of their exhaustion. Catherine said something like “this is unforgettable; we don’t want it to end.” And she spoke for the group, which was when I realized how profound the whole thing was for them—an outing with their teacher (rare), their first real fun class event since moving away to college, the novelty that all freshman feel at experiences like this (been there), and the depth of both the bonding that was taking place and the experience of natural beauty. But also, these students work so hard and have such a packed class schedule, with lots of pressure to excel in school and get a high-paying job; my guess was that they may have simply enjoyed the break from that a reality—a chance to simply play for a while.

…ON THANKSGIVING. We were able to celebrate the holiday here in some different ways. At English Corner we focused our discussion on articulating those things for which we are grateful, and made “hand turkeys” (kind of a kindergarten-level activity, but it worked). It was fun to hear students’ comments of thanksgiving, especially because they’re not often challenged toward such contemplative thinking. It was also good to share a bit of American culture, though I’m not sure how truthful we were. That is, we told them about a holiday in which we count our blessings and consider the goodness of what we DO have, but failed to tell them that the very next day is itself a sort of holiday in America, where we are charged, via heavy marketing and good sales, to consider what we DON’T have (at least not yet). To complete our holiday experience, we were treated to a Thanksgiving meal by some friends in Wuhan who own a diner and provided for us a filling meal, with all the Thanksgiving essentials, from stuffing to sweet potatoes to pumpkin pie. Nice to have a “taste” of home.

…ON CONTINUED ENGAGING DISCUSSION. It’s sweet the way students I don’t know initiate conversation with me, very sincerely trying to connect with me, even if they ignore my questions in favor of the scripted conversational phrases they’ve studied. Sometimes it’s best to just let them lead the way and follow their script. :) But as I’ve recounted in past weeks, those more thoughtful conversations occur from time to time. The most recent one involved me sharing my many experiences traveling, including where I went, why I went there, and how I’ve funded it all. They listen wide-eyed and with longing, for nearly all of them would express a desire to travel abroad, but all say the same thing: they can’t afford it. To which I usually respond, “neither can I.” I think it’s much more about the pressures they feel to stay on the straight and narrow path toward security and success, which as I’ve suggested before, often involves a very noble and loving commitment to family. I would guess this is the real barrier, not money. Because I’ve had the total freedom to chart my course and make choices about how I want to live my life, I’ve been able to explore the world with the aid of student loans, a research grant, and occasional contributions from family and friends. It’s not personal wealth (though arguably my country’s wealth has enabled me to some degree), but decisions I've made where the benefits far outweight the consequences.

I guess I’m trying my best to offer them hope that such opportunities are possible, though they may have to wait a while. And I try to sympathize with their very different situation, though encourage them not to lose hope, to be patient, and to consider what their priorities are and live their life accordingly. They understand the formative power and adventure of travel; I think they just feel stuck. I feel at times like John Keating in “Dead Poets Society”—the “dangerous” free thinker among pliable young minds who both liberates and stirs up trouble while challenging the status quo. It's really a role I love, especially knowing that I'm being liberated here as much as I'm doing the liberating.


Barb said...

Nice. Very nice.
I love reading your comments Matt. I feel as though I am there. What a blessing you are to these young adults...and in turn, you are blessed back.

Chris said...

O Captain, my captain!

I am sure you could find the movie and show it to your students... they would probably love it!

Scrumpy said...

I am so surprised to hear they aren't encouraged toward contemplation. I thought that was part of the Chinese culture.