Cathy in Asia

News from China #2 - October 17, 1999

What am I doing here?

In the first few days I was in China, much was unknown to me, including whether I'd be happy here or not. I was in a kind of limbo, hanging out in The Vault. Life became more focussed after the Opening Ceremony of the program and I found out more or less what it was I'd come to do here.

I am working for Capilano College, which is running a two-year International Business Administration diploma at Dalian Nationalities University. The two institutions have made a partnership whereby the facilities are provided by DNU, and the course curriculum and faculty are provided by Cap College. Many of the students hope to go to Canada to continue their studies after finishing the diploma.

The course fees are expensive (about $Cdn 7200), so the students, all young people mostly straight out of high school, are children of wealthy parents, and are well-connected socially and politically. Some of these parents attended the Opening Ceremony, at which the faculty all sat up on a stage under blinding, burning lights while 2nd year students sat behind us and provided individual simultaneous (or not) translations of speeches by DNU President Jin and other dignitaries; nice things were said about the partnership between Canada and China and the other things you would expect; but the President rambled on and on, and if my interpreter understood correctly, the Pres also talked about how beautiful the women in Canada are, and also how fat; and he gave a stern warning to the students not to get involved in the Falun Gong Sect (presently under state persecution) and not to drink too much.

The opening ceremony was held on Tuesday, September 7, the day I had expected to start teaching. However, one of the things we (the three ESL instructors) had not been able to determine was when our first class would in fact be. One factor for the delay seemed to be that the text books for our courses were tied up in Customs. One of us was sweating bullets because in the boxes of texts and teaching materials we were waiting for she had also packed some books on Yoga and Eastern spirituality, all of which could be easily taken as subversive by the Falun Gong obsessed Chinese Customs agents. Another factor seemed to be the need for the students to be "indoctrinated" for a couple of days on matters which were not revealed or explained to us.

However, after the opening ceremony, a student mentioned in conversation that the first class would be the next Monday. "Oh," we said politely, trying not to reveal our ignorance. Later, we were told to go on a campus tour with the other faculty, so we showed up at the appointed time. We were led to a lecture room where all the first year students were having a kind of assembly. We were asked to sit down in the front row, and we listened to various instructions in Chinese; then our Director announced we would have our first class on Friday. I got the distinct impression the schedule was being made up as we went along.

After the campus tour we had our first Cap faculty meeting. On classroom management, we were instructed to stay away from religion or politics--Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade are examples of issues to avoid. We were also advised that a child's education is of primary importance in a Chinese family's life, and that the parents would have made huge sacrifices for their children's education. In addition, almost all these students are only children as a result of China's one child policy, begun in 1978. They are, therefore, under tremendous pressure to succeed, and they cheat like crazy during quizzes and tests. (Experience has already borne this out as being true and test invigilation has taken on a new meaning for me: no more marking or getting caught up on lesson planning. I'm learning to watch like a hawk, and I'm getting stricter and stricter: if a student looks left or right I'll give a zero--I did it once but it turned out the student didn't actually copy her neighbour's test so I have to refine my radar for cheating.) Finally, parents may attempt to get involved with the instructors; perhaps bringing lavish presents. Armed with this daunting information, we prepared ourselves for our first class which was to be from 8:30 to 10:30 on the Friday.

That evening we were invited for dinner with President Jin. It was a raucous event, with much "ganbei"ing, which I learned the meaning of quickly. As we raised our full glasses for the first toast, I said "ganbei"; thinking it to be the Chinese version of "Cheers," but all fifteen people sitting around the table looked at me in horror; to them "ganbei", means "bottoms up" and is a challenge between individuals. To do so before eating was a bit on the fast side as there would be plenty of that later. After the dinner we were sent in a mini bus downtown to see the lights of Dalian. We went to Zhongshan Square (a circle, actually) where there were hundreds of people dancing in unison in the warm summer evening.

The next day Mr. Tian insisted the Friday class was at 8:00, not 8:30; then during the class, when we asked what the students would be doing the rest of the day, he said, "Oh, actually I thought you would be taking them all day." The ground has continued to shift under our feet, with the students always seeming to know before us when and where the classes are. I managed to go with the flow and flex and bend with each change, until the fiasco of the National Holiday, the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the PRC. Students were making announcements in our classes in Chinese; unbeknownst to us, they were saying that there would be no classes the next week (the week of Sept. 27) and that there would be make-up classes on Saturday and Sunday of the following week. I, meanwhile, was announcing they had to turn in their homework assignments the next Tuesday, oblivious to the contradiction. At a faculty meeting the next day, our director told us that he had only just heard from the DNU President, who had only just heard himself two days before from the government, that all government offices and universities would be closed down for the entire week. It still begged the question how the students knew before we did; and for the first time I succumbed to feeling angry. In retrospect it seems a non-issue, but the frustration kind of snuck up on me. I found myself having culturally unfriendly thoughts--is it a massive power trip over millions of people that you just announce a week long holiday a few days before, or is it incredible disorganization?

We did start our regular classes on the 13th of September, and the textbooks did arrive on the Wednesday. The box with the suspect material had not been inspected and almost all the texts did arrive safely. I am teaching the first year ESL courses which are theoretically advanced academic preparation courses. The mood in the classroom has changed considerably since the beginning of the term, when I faced 25 incomprehending bodies; now the classes have become quite a bit livelier, as the students' listening and speaking skills have improved with exposure and practise. We need to improve their skills even more dramatically before they start taking the business management courses next term. We have 64 students altogether; 25, 24, and 15 in each section.

In my grammar and writing class, the students have to write a journal which they turn in once a week. Here I get the best sense of what the students are really like. They are earnest and idealistic, writing how much they love their parents, about the sacrifices their parents have made for them, about the responsibility they have to do well and overcome challenges. They frequently employ platitudes such as "East, West, home is best," and "Be a man" (even the women). One evening I was feeling a bit homesick (after all, "East, West, home is best") and felt my lip quivering, but the phrase "be a man" had burned itself into my brain and I pulled myself together. There are other things in my brain, too. One girl described the activities we had done in my class, and concluded, "from the above we can see Catherine is a clear lady whose brain full of teaching technology."

The students are also naive, politically and socially. Some of them seem to be under the impression that China has just celebrated her 50th birthday, thereby implying that Chinese history started 50 years ago. Their fervent longing for Taiwan to return to the motherland contains absolutely no recognition that Taiwan may have reasons for not wanting to (and this is another topic on which we may not engage, indeed on which it would be useless to engage). Very few of the students have used computers or the Internet; those who have have only played computer games or used chat rooms. (One girl related how a man she met in an Internet chat room, who had according to her become her very good friend, had telephoned her one day and asked her to marry him.) The positive aspect is that the students are impressionable and in general take what we say very much to heart.

So this is the program and these are the players. I'm enjoying the work. Next time, "out and about" in China.