"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.

1 comment:

Barb said...

Ok, so I thought I posted but I don't see it.

Matt in reading about your adventures, I laugh, cry, shake my head, and can just SEE you doing all of this.

I am so proud you. The tender little boy has grown into a tender, compassionate, caring man.

I love you.