First of all, I know it has been a while since my last post. Things have been incredibly busy here between helping the students prepare for Heqing's first Shakespearean play and making arrangements for my trip back to the states. I have more thoughts I want to get down before I leave and begin my next life, but it will take some time.
As a part of the "pre-term" assignments I have to complete before the fall term begins at business school, I wrote a short piece answering the question, "have you ever been in a situation where you felt morally conflicted with your employer or organization? How did you handle it?" My response is below.
One of the reasons I enjoy being in China so much is that I love Chinese food. If you've never been to China, but have been to a Chinese restaurant, you might also think, "I love Chinese food, too!" But you'd be wrong, because that ain't Chinese food, as they say. Having been on a "Chinese diet" for about two years now, I have a new perspective on food. I mean, how can you not when you've eaten pig head, pig ears, pig nose, pig liver, pig kidney, pig feet, and pig blood in addition to the more general "pork."
Also, there are no fortune cookies in China. It's a stupid gimmick and you've all been fooled, as I once was.
We found ourselves sitting in "Restaurant 97", one of dozens of tents serving food outside of Ta Prohm, one of the ancient temples of Angkor that is particularly well known for having been overtaken by the jungle. As usual in Cambodia, it was sweltering, 100-something for sure, and we had just collapsed into our seats after the 7 kilometer bike ride to ancient city Angkor Thom, and the dozen or so sweaty, unexpected kilometers it took to find Restaurant 97.
Our lunch was long and relaxing, but our anticipation of exploring the six-hundred year-old tree infested temple was repeatedly shattered by a young boy who kept approaching our table selling books and disturbing metal figurines with giant phalluses. I was more interested in his own story than the stories in the books he was selling (and even more so than his disfigured-figurines).
At the end of the day, our conversation with that boy left a deeper impression on me than did the crumbling Ta Prohm. I simply couldn't believe how well he was speaking English. He claimed to be thirteen years old, looked about nine, and could converse with us better than most Chinese college students. How did he pull this off?
I started reading a book called 三重门 over our one week break, and many of the Chinese fellows came up to me and commented how they had read that book while they were in middle school. Aside from feeling dejected yet again about my Chinese (I was struggling through the book), I was surprised that the fellows had had time to read it in middle school. I'm guessing that better-off city schools give students a bit more free time than they do in the countryside, but still, the life of a Chinese student is not easy.
One of the more discouraging aspects of teaching in rural China is the complete lack of non-academic outlets for students, hence my suprise. As I've described before, at Pengtun, students begin the day at 6:30 with morning exercises, have about 20 minutes for breakfast, and then have morning classes from 7:25 until 12:05. They begin afternoon classes at 1:20, and they spend the one hour and fifteen-minute break eating lunch (some at the school and some at home), hanging around, or throwing a basketball around. Afternoon classes end at 4:45, and then night self study period (read: classes) begins at 6:30. Students spend their break eating dinner (some at the school and some at home), hanging around, or throwing a basketball around. Night self study time ends at 8:30, and students who board at the school need to remain in their classrooms until 9:30, when the have half an hour to prepare for bed. Lights out at ten o'clock. Their days are full, and they have neither the time, resources, or inclination to pursue outside hobbies.
That's why the Integrated Drama and Literacy Project is such a big deal.
Some liken education systems to giant hands lifting society up, one youth at a time. (Okay, I can't say for sure if other people subscribe to that image, but I guess that's how I had always imagined it.) I remember when I was in elementary school, the kids who got the most attention from the teacher, in class and after, were the kids who were struggling to keep pace with the rest of the class.
It wasn't until I started teaching last year that I realized just how large the gap can be between the high-achievers and the strugglers. As a young student, I was pretty myopic and just assumed that everyone else more or less saw things the way I did, understood things as I did. As a teacher, the gap is obvious, and consistent. No matter how difficult or easy I design a unit test, the same few students will always come out on top, and the strugglers will always lag behind. It makes logical sense to me, then, that teachers would spend more time with the students who are struggling, because they will continue to struggle otherwise, until they reach the point where they are so far behind they have no hope of catching up.
In China, however, the system is less like a pair of giant hands, and more like a sieve.
I lost four students during the first week of my class last semester. From what I understand it's fairly normal for kids to drop out of 7th grade in their first week. For many who have to board, it's their first time living away from home. And for those who belong to minority minorities, it can be difficult getting along with everyone else. There's also the draw of staying home to help the family farm, do business, or otherwise make money. For a kid who is really struggling at school, one can almost understand the reasoning behind pulling a kid out to help the family.
At the end of last semester, the Chinese teacher for our class wrote a small piece for the students to commemorate the completion of one whole semester of 7th grade Chinese. I publish it here (in English, my translation) not only because it is beautifully written and a wonderful momento of my beloved students from another teachers' perspective, but also because highlights some cultural differences between how teachers and students interact in the US and in China. In the US, I would expect this type of thing to be humorous and light, and to highlight the positive aspects of each student as a form of encouragement, no matter how much the student may be struggling. Here, that's not quite the case. Still, it brings a warm feeling to my heart to read that other teachers have the same thoughts and reactions to the students as my foreign self does.
Having just come back from winter break a few days earlier, I was not so surprised to find the head teacher of my class knocking at my door. I had just recovered from a serious bout of 拉肚子 from some poorly chosen street food in Shenzhen, but when she told me that there would be a feast at a family residence not too far down the road from the school, I graciously accepted.