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

Thursday, March 25, 2010

History is Mao

Things feel different this term, and I don’t think the reasons for this are all that surprising. I feel like I’m a better teacher than I was when I arrived in August, with several months of teaching under my belt. I think I’m more aware how to navigate the communication challenges now, especially when it comes to getting resources for the classroom.

I think because of the cohort model of the two groups of students I teach, our community has deepened, both in and out of the classroom. This makes teaching them easier, as I have a good sense of everyone’s level and can accommodate to their learning needs and push them where appropriate. It also makes life outside the classroom more meaningful, as I continue to see conversations deepen and casual hang-out time increase.

The weather is also warming up, which makes campus livelier as students are spending more time outside rather than retreating to their dorms to stay warm. The weather means I’m out jogging more often. It also means I catch the eye of lusty (but sweet) little Chinese girls who are enamored by my (relatively) hairy arms and legs when they see me in my workout getup.

I’m also learning the language at a much more rapid pace, which really does make things a lot easier, especially at restaurants. To motivate myself and my students as well, I’ve started having my Monday night class quiz me every week on some new vocabulary. I figure that maybe my fervor for language learning might encourage them to challenge themselves a bit more. Two weeks ago it was colors, last week it was fruits and vegetables. My students gave me an "A" the first week, a "C" the second week, mostly for pronunciation problems. I’d better study harder next week.

I’ve had some fruitful conversations in recent couple weeks. I think having been here seven months, I’ve earned the trust of many and also earned the space to share my values with others—something I always seek to do in a respectful and gentle way. Sometimes the conversation is serious, sometimes light.

I was asking students to express in English the meaning of different areas of study…biology, psychology, chemistry. I would say the word, they would give a definition. When I said “history,” one girl, who rarely speaks in class, sitting in the front row, responded: “Mao.” I laughed out loud, they laughed out loud, and it took me a minute to figure out if she was serious or not, before I realized she was indeed mocking the way her and her classmates’ experience of education is very China-centric. It’s interesting to observe this tension in students, as this generation more than others seems to feel a bit torn between their tradition and the more global worldview that is slowly developing in them.

I had a conversation the other day with a student who was shocked to find out that I believed in God. “Really?!?” she said. “Like Muslims?” I explained that many different faith traditions believe in God, even some Buddhists. I could see her mulling this over in her mind, a bit confounded by the fact that her intelligent teacher believed in God. “But what about revolution?” I laughed and told her that I’m not sure if evolution (her real meaning) is how God crafted life or not, but that I didn’t think God and science were incompatible (for her it was clearly one or the other). Then she asked, “so you think God created every human being?” I said yes, and every plant, animal, electron…all of it. Again, after a contemplative and shocked expression, she asked, “so is God a man?”

I began to realize that she had a picture of God as something like an emperor, someone in charge but by no means “great.” So for me to explain to her my belief in the vastness of God and the scope of what God has created was novel for her. I’ll admit I was a bit shocked that such things would be so novel to a 20-year-old, but then again, this is the world she’s grown up in. She asked me what makes Christianity unique from other God-based religions, and I told her it was our belief in the importance of the man Jesus, sent by God, and the importance of what he said and did. I left it that, feeling I’d given her enough to ponder for one evening.

I had another girl ask me what being a pastor involves, during a discussion about my future plans. After giving a description, she said something like, “in China, you aren’t paid to be a Christian.” I laughed and quickly reassured her that being a Christian and pastor are different, that a pastor is financially supported by a group of Christians who desire that pastor give his or her energies toward leading and guiding them.

I tried to explain it as something like a teacher, counselor, and community-service organizer combined who seeks to help people love people better (to combat her initial assumptions that she’d gotten from movies, that I was going to be in a dark room listening to people talk about the bad things they’ve done). I compared it to the relationship I have with her and her classmates. She also asked me to confirm that “all Americans are Christians, right?” To which I responded with, “Are all Chinese Buddhist?”

I continue to recognize that this is one of my favorite roles to play in people’s lives—expanding their perspective, clarifying misunderstanding, helping people recognize their biases, encouraging people to consider looking at things from a different angle. I know that I personally am committed to the pursuit of such enlightenment—to use that word not in the Buddhist nor modernist sense—and spend so much time reading and in other cultures because I seek this.

A few other highlights. A girl at English corner taught me some Tai Chi the other day. That’s on my list of to-do’s before leaving China…learn how to defend myself with Chinese Martial Arts.

A student who rarely talked to me last term has begun to speak with me more often. She did some things that really hurt one of her best friends (blogged about this in January), and that other friend has distanced herself from the friend who wronged her. But this student who has now been abandoned and remains arguably unrepentant toward her friend used to be heavily dependent on that friend for English translation. Now that she can no longer depend on her, she has become more confident in her own ability and become a better student and a friendlier person toward me. So while I don’t validate her actions in recent months, I love that she’s starting to open up, slowly. Some good has come out of this.

In class the other day my students and I were discussing future hopes and goals. One question was, “how many children do you want?” One girl quickly responded, “Hilary wants four.” And everybody laughed. I suspected that most of the girls in this class assume that the parent with four kids has a more active sex life than the parent with one kid. I began to try to challenge this assumption, but realized I wasn’t prepared to be the one to liberate 24 girls and one boy from their sexual naiveté, so I backed off.

Other teachers have suggested these students really are far more ignorant about sexuality than Americans their age. I actually consider this to be potentially detrimental, because I think it sets them up—especially the girls—for making bad choices, especially when I see a lot of young men here acting overly entitled and pushy toward women. But that’s a much longer conversation.

I’d better not end with that. While playing ping-pong the other day, I was teasing a student by mimicking her odd motions. While doing so, I slammed my head against a low-hanging beam. It REALLY hurt, so much that I had to stop playing for a few minutes to regain composure. And while I was in pain, all the students present were laughing. Which was kind of annoying at first; I don’t tend to like to be mocked while physically in pain. Until, that is, I realized that it was really a pretty funny scenario, with me kind of getting what I deserved for teasing my student. It was a good lesson in not taking life so seriously.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Chinese Birthday

I wanted to reassure everyone that I have been properly honored and celebrated on my 27th birthday. Like Christmas this past year, another holiday (is it egotistical of me to refer to my birthday as “holiday?”) has been experienced apart from many I love. However, this, er, holiday was in fact spent with many people I love…just a different community of loved ones.

It was a whole birthday weekend extravaganza. On Friday evening I went to KTV with my sophomore students, as well as Will and John (a former teacher from Canada visiting for a few days). This wasn’t actually a birthday party for me, but I suppose the togetherness and the timing made me attribute it to myself (there’s that ego again). We had fun, singing and dancing and trying to solve a riddle one student presented.

What was really special, however, is the connectedness I’m increasingly feeling with this group, something that seemed a bit lacking last term. More students are gaining the confidence to talk with me, showing an increased comfort around me. Often students who don’t feel their English is great will defer to others and depend on their translation to interact with me, thinking they’ll look foolish if they can’t keep up with me in conversation. But the students just seem a bit less hindered by such fears compared with last term. I’ve enjoyed some special conversations lately with these students, upon which I’ll probably elaborate in a later post.

On Sunday afternoon I had a nice birthday lunch with my teacher friends. Then on Sunday evening, my freshman students took me out for a birthday dinner (this WAS an official party for me). They even had a huge cake with “2” and “7” candles for me to blow out. We ate cake (first) then dinner, before I gave a birthday speech to them, thanking them and expressing the joy of sharing my birthday with them.

And I really wouldn’t have had it any other way. These students are a light to me, showing the beauty of embracing, hospitable, and unconditional love (even the ones I gave low grades to last term still seem to cherish me). They regularly go out of their way to make sure I’m happy, taken care of, and appreciated. I will never forget this birthday, partly because of its uniqueness and partly because of those with whom I shared it.

One another holiday-related note. As it is St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve been wearing a goofy, leprechaun-looking hat today that my mom sent me in a birthday/care package. Both in class and walking across campus, I’ve gotten, as expected, laugher and puzzled looks. I just smile with a knowing look that says, “yep…it’s weird.”

Though I didn’t initially know how strange it is. Apparently, in China, when a man wears a green hat, it means his wife is cheating on him. I guess I don’t see a lot of green hats in China. A couple students seemed more concerned than amused, trying to warn me about the meaning. I just laughed and told them I wasn’t concerned, that it’s an Irish and American thing, and that it’s good for students to be exposed to other customs and be reminded (in a silly way) that there are other non-Chinese ways of seeing the world (which as I’ve noted before, they struggle with here, just like I do as an American).

I lightheartedly suggested to one concerned student that she relax and get out of her Chinese box. I’m usually not THAT direct about challenging students' often-limited worldviews; but she’s a friend, so I got away with it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Wrapping Up a Fabulous Holiday

I’m one week into the new term, though the experiences of this last month are still lingering in my mind. This is the kind of experience in which I thrive, feel alive, find meaning and adventure: visiting new places, meeting people, figuring out how to navigate my way around with a loose plan. I feel my understanding of China broadened, as I got to see a bit more of the diversity of life in China, from the multi-era, multi-cultural, vibrant feel of the big cities to the fishing village life of some of the small towns I visited.

People I met were often surprised to discover I lived in Xiaogan. And while if I had been more educated about Chinese life and done more research and gone with a separate organization I might have chosen a big city, I can say my ignorance is bliss. Xiaogan feels right and good and exactly where I’ve needed to be, and that belief makes me realize I’d rather be here than anywhere else. And, it makes me cringe to try and imagine my life without all of the relationships I’ve formed here, all which would be sacrificed if I’d gone elsewhere. This is why I don’t tend to have major regrets; any choice to “re-do” part of my life means giving up too many other precious things.

So what will I most remember from this holiday? The people.

There was Kenny, an American-born Chinese young man who shared with me his belief that the younger generations in China generally feel that the forced learning of the PRC’s traditional values and politics are hogwash, irrelevant to life now. Because of the way students at my school obediently accept what they’re taught and are often discouraged from offering their personal critiques and opinions, it hasn’t been all that evident to me that these philosophies are more like relics of a dying worldview than a perspective they intend to actually embrace as their own. China is certainly changing.

There was Dave from Australia, who found it incredulous that I had a girlfriend back home to whom I’ve been faithful to while in China, when I could be out sleeping with dozens of Chinese girls. He’s got a point, I suppose, though not compelling enough to win me over.

There was Craig, who dialogued with me about his Buddhist faith and reassured me that there are young people actively seeking to satisfy their spiritual hunger here, something maybe more evident in the big cities. The young people I’ve encountered seem to see spirituality as something important to their grandparents, or else don’t see the relevance of it to their life and see it instead more as unneeded ritual. Though, I think my fellow Christians and I often give others this impression about Jesus’ spirituality as well—that it’s not something necessarily meant to be interwoven into all facets of daily life but is something more like an escape, or a nice add-on to life, much like taking up a new hobby would be in how it just rounds out our life rather than transforming all facets of it.

Related, there was the Dali Lama. Okay, so I didn’t actually meet him, but encountered him in a book in Hong Kong (would have to be Hong Kong…he’s not really admired these days in mainland China in light of issues with Tibet). I was really touched and challenged by his wisdom and the relevance of his teachings, despite the ways I find the Buddhist worldview lacking. I’d imagine some of the young people I encounter, who I believe are at risk for letting greed dictate their choices in life, might benefit from more exposure to Buddhism, which seems to suggest greed and ignorance as primary causes of the world’s suffering...a seemingly collectivist way of looking at our broken human condition that really resonates with me.

There was Anna’s Dad, whose hospitality was unending (as were his attempts to make sure my wine glass stayed full). It was a great honor for him to host a foreigner (let alone his daughter’s teacher) as not many foreigners visit his smaller city. One night over dinner he asked me (through his daughter’s translating) what the most important things in life were to me. I said something about giving and receiving love, feeling a sense of purpose and call in what I do, growing in my understanding of the world, just off the top of my head. He said health and money, and wondered why money wasn’t more important to me. I said that one “never has enough money” and that money can’t make me happy. He insisted that money can make you happy, because you can get more things you want when you have money. I said that money can’t buy me the things I desire. He said that I was young, and that more life experience might change my perspective. I smiled and went back to eating shellfish.

There was Wayne, an American businessman I talked to at the hotel bar in Guangzhou who has been living at the hotel for three months and has had previous such stints in the past. It was in some way profound to hear him talk of his “community”—the hotel staff, with whom he has shared many a drink and dart game. Amidst his dining recommendations I could sense this strange mix of discontentment and contentment—a man who seems a bit rootless and unsettled but nonetheless accepts the life he lives, finding community where he can.

There was Ruby’s (student) mom, a reminder of how eager many Chinese are to make sure I and my fellow foreigners are comfortable and taken care of. At a restaurant one night, I pointed out a dish that I really liked, a combination of tofu, sprouts, and some other vegetables with a really great seasoning. For the rest of my stay in Tiancu, she made me that same dish at home for every meal...because, if I liked it once, I would want it at every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, right? That was her conclusion, which showed her attentiveness to my needs…even if she misunderstood my “needs.” It wasn’t THAT good of dish.

There was the family of seven from New Zealand who stayed with us at the retreat center on the island of Cheung Chau, with the boy who liked to show me how flexible he was by bending his arms and legs in odd ways (“I’m kind of a freak,” he’d say), the little girl with the gorgeous, slightly large eyes that made me want to be a daddy every time she looked at me, and the politically conservative father who pushed back on all my slightly left-leaning opinions about everything from the free market to the environment. His opinions somehow sounded more credible with that New Zealand accent.

There were the kids running around the cruise ship on the Pearl River in Guangzhou, going wherever they felt like going, saying hello and smiling every time they ran past me out on the deck, going into the control room and pretending to steer the boat...limitless energy, friendly and sincere, disinterested in being “proper.” I got a bit nostalgic for childhood watching them.

Nice to have my experience of China deepened and to encounter such a diversity of people. But it’s also nice to be back teaching, as I’m with people who I’ve come to treasure very deeply, and who I hope to both give to and receive from even more profoundly this term.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Holiday Travel Phase Five: Hong Kong & Cheung Chau

A final grouping of pictures from my travels as I gear up for the beginning of the Spring term. I met up with my other NWYM-sent teachers for a week-long retreat (14th-19th) in Hong Kong. More specifically, Cheung Chau, a small island about a 40-min ferry ride from Hong Kong. The six of us (plus two of our friends from the States who did the facilitating) had a rich time forecasting various aspects of the next four months, from our unity and accountability as a team to teaching techniques. A nice time of recharging for a new semester, and, for me, a relaxing end to my three weeks of fast-paced travel around SE China. The island was gorgeous--no cars, small enough to walk around in an afternoon, and beautiful views. And Hong Kong was...advanced...efficient...busy. I felt like I was in a smartly designed city, a tribute to the free market, a place where people spend (and probably make) a lot of money. It was impressive, though I don't think I'd want to live there.

One of the major streets of Hong Kong.

A large portion of downtown is connected by sky bridges that take you right through the different buildings...this is what I mean by well-designed and well-planned.

Another innovation of Hong Kong. This is a lengthy outdoor escalator that spans several blocks and winds its way up the hill, used heavily by commuters who live further up the hillside of downtown. It's the world's longest outdoor escalator system.

Hong Kong from the ferry, heading back to our retreat center on Cheung Chau.

View from the top of one of the peaks of Cheung Chau. You can see the town below and the dumbbell-shaped layout of the island.

Cheung Chau's version of the Great Wall. Maybe just a "good" wall? It's actually not much of a wall at all.

Ferry dock and harbor.

Down on the beach.

The crew.