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December 2007 Archives

December 7, 2007

Part 2: The Mid-Autumn Rebellion

All this control can be maddening, and I worry about its effect on my students’ development, seeing as how they have so little chance to decide how to live and manage their own lives. But one day, I was heartened when sounds of a mini revolt burst forth from the dormitory halls across the cafeteria from my home on campus.

The atmosphere was ripe for revolt as the students were bursting with energy leftover from celebrating the mid-autumn festival that evening. Normally confined to their classrooms for mandatory study periods from supper until bedtime, my students were given the evening to celebrate in the open air under the classroom buildings, setting up games and songs amid red Chinese lanterns and plenty of traditional moon cakes.

At the festival, I was surprised to see my normally sedate students yelling and singing songs during a game of musical chairs (which, I discovered, is much more of an international game than I had imagined) and a counting game that punished the losing participants with a pull at pieces of mooncakes, some which were sweet and some of which had been stuffed with nose-numbing wasabi.

At the conclusion of the festival, the students buzzed their way back to their dormitories for bed time. The bedtime bell soon rang, calling an end to the evening. But, excited from the buzz of mid-autumn festival, the students cried out in unison from their dorm rooms. As if on key, an overwhelming scream reverberated throughout the campus.

Later reports by my students were hazy as to whether the girls’ dorm or the boys’ dorm was the initial perpetrator of the rowdiness. Whoever the instigator, both dorms eventually joined in the mini mid-autumn rebellion, refusing to go to bed at the appointed hour and joining together in a coordinated scream of defiance.

Soon enough, speakers cackled awake with warnings urging—threatening—the students to quiet down. “What if someone’s hurt? We won’t know to go help them!” the speakers hastily reasoned.

The post-hoc reasons bandied by the loudspeakers were clearly weak, no more moving than a cap gun. But the reasons were the sneakers of the real message. The message was that the leaders, the authorities were not happy about this. If need be, order would be restored through punishment.

But the mid-autumn rebellion still didn’t die down so quickly. Only time and breathlessness could quash the fervent but aimless mid-autumn rebellion. And as the students tired they eventually retreated to their rooms, putting their tired heads to sleep only to wake up at 6:15 the following morning and revert back to synchronizing with the cues emanating from the loud speakers directing them to their morning exercise. The mid-autumn rebellion of 2007 was over, but this small act of rebellion against a school system that controls nearly every aspect of student life won’t soon be forgotten.

Part 1: My School and Smalltown 1950's America

Teaching at the best high school in one of the most economically advanced provinces in the China, I’ve been given an extraordinary opportunity to talk to the students on the path to the elite colleges and powerful positions in a country that’s undergoing massive change and only going to become more important in the world. Given the amount of freedom I get from my supposed bosses and the vague goal of improving my students’ conversational English, I often take the opportunity to talk about topics that I’m personally interested in.

This week the topic was differences in the lifestyle of American and Chinese highschoolers. Clearly, differences abound. Judging from my experiences in China, I can say that one of the biggest differences is the role school plays in life: the basic conception of school is fundamentally different.

In the US, school is confined to a part of your life; school is conceptualized as only one part of an individual’s life. In China, however, school isn’t cordoned off from other parts of life; in China school is conceptualized as connected to just about all parts of an individual’s life. I was surprised to learn, for example, that school’s control everything from the length of students’ hair to whether or not they can date.

There’s a small, modest-looking barbershop at the base of the large apartment building just outside back gate to my school. Passing by it everyday, I thought that only old women, unable to afford more and long past caring what their hair looks like, would get their hair cut there, but it is to that small shop that my male students sometimes have to run to get their haircut when the class principal deems that their hair has exceeded standard.

Teachers also do their best to sniff out young budding romance in the halls of my high school and stamp it out. Such happened to a Chinese friend of mine that I met at Michigan. After her teachers found out she was dating a boy in her high school, her teacher sat down with them each individually in her office and encouraged them to break it off. “Did you break up with him just because your teacher told you to?” I asked. “I must not have liked him very much, since I broke up with him,” she said.

In China, teachers’ mandate is not just to ensure that their students learn the material, but to make sure that their students are good, successful people in every aspect of life.

The same amount of pervasive control is exterted by other parts of the school’s apparatus. Two friends of mine studying at Peking Medical University discovered what the consequence was of having to register with the security who kept the only entrance to their dormitory locked at night. After going out several times in the evening and returning late at night, their security guard passed the information along to their teachers who admonished them for going out at night, saying it would affect their studies. It was as if they were living in a small 1950’s American town where the neighbor down the street would call your mother if you were misbehaving in another part of town.

Being at a high school, the control is even tighter for my students, who are not allowed to go out at night or even to decide when to turn out the lights in their room. At 10:30pm, the campus bells ring their sugary tune for the last time of the day to tell students it’s time to turn their lights out and go to bed. At this time, student monitors begin cruising the floors, writing up any offenders and chalking up demerit points. A small handful of demerits is enough to be kicked out of the school, according to my students, although they say it’s rare for anyone to get kicked out.

December 9, 2007

I Like How You're So Standard

Am I a standard teacher? I can only hope so. China is a country that’s got its standards all figured out, with clear standards that pervade almost every aspect of life for which standards can be used to rank things.

Tourist destinations are the first place foreigners are likely to run into the standardization in China. Lijiang is mostly recognized as the best ancient city in China, Huangshan is usually thought to be the best mountain to climb, and Quanjude restaurants are hands down the best place to get Peking duck, or so people agree.

In the course of teaching at a high school in Guangzhou, I also learned that college admissions is even more clearly standardized than the necessary sights and foods of China. As I detailed the American college admissions process with its various measures like tests, letters of recommendation, extracurriculars, personal statements, and the like and compared it with the Chinese system where admissions rides almost solely on a single test, many of my students were shocked. “But how do they know who’s better? There’s no clear standard,” some remarked.

Throughout discussions with 11 different classes about US and Chinese college admissions, my students’ overwhelmingly wanted the current Chinese system for China, despite the flaws of an all-or-nothing exam that dominates their high school curriculum for 3 years.

The standardized tests have the effect of extending standardization to the ranks of Chinese colleges. Ask nearly anyone in China and they can tell you with almost no variation the correct order of the top ten colleges and where any college falls in the line. By contrast, college rankings in the US are contentious and usually thought to be flawed, though just about everyone in China recognizes that Tsinghua University is the best, with Peking University in second place, and Zhejiang University third, and so on.

Standardization is also very clear in language. When I returned to China after a year back in the States and a year of practice with a conversation partner, I was often greeted by people saying, ‘Oh, your Chinese is very standard!’ For my part, though, I had to keep checking with my Chinese friends to make sure this was actually a compliment, rather than an indication that my Chinese bore the marks of an overstuffy and overformalized learner.

And thus language is yet another area of Chinese life where standards are both clear and clearly valued. Mandarin has been the standard language since only the mid twentieth century, but speaking standard Mandarin is already valued as sign of high education.

Institutions like schools and governments also push people toward using Mandarin instead of local languages. Signs hang on most classroom doors in the school I teach at urging students to “Speak good Mandarin and write standard characters,” an effort that takes aim in part at the native Cantonese of many of the students.

Government signs also urge people to use Mandarin, just like the large sign at the arrivals hall in Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport that asks citizens to “Speak Mandarin in order to create a harmonious society.” Anyone who’s studied Chinese as a foreign language and run into the maddening complexity the dialects present could only hope the government’s efforts are successful.

The pervasiveness and acceptance of standards is an interesting aspect of Chinese life unique from American society, and it seems to reflect the greater pressure of conformity in Chinese life rather than the pressure to be unique in American society.

It’s also interesting to think that an acceptance of external standards removes the impetus for individual choice and preference that is so integral to modern consumeristic life in the West, where each person’s duty is to carve out a personal style of what clothes we like, food we eat, etc.

As China modernizes and Chinese people have more money and more things to buy, it will be interesting to see how the forces of standardization and individual preference vie against each other.

However this contest between individual preference and standardized conformity plays out, at least it’ll all take place at the same time across the country, for even time has been standardized across the country, with all of China, a country slightly larger than the United States, from far Western Tibet to Beijing in the east all operating on Beijing Time.

December 11, 2007

Why I Was Absent for the "Teacher Sports Meeting"

I owe my colleagues an explanation for why I wasn’t at this year’s teachers’ sports meeting like I said I would.

Last Saturday afternoon my Chinese friend Becky and I were sitting on cheap plastic stools in the old Shangxia Jiu district drinking coke out of glass bottles and a cheap orange juice-like drink. We basked in the silence that had come after the tiredness from spending several hours walking around Guangzhou wore at our desire for small talk, and all of a sudden my phone buzzed with a text message in Chinese from my roommate and Princeton in Asia fellow, David (we’ve taken to texting in Chinese as a form of practice).

“What!?” I blurted. “What’s wrong?” Becky asked. “The sports meeting’s right now! They’re all wondering why we’re not there. My school never tells me anything!” I said.

The “teachers’ sports meeting,” as the teachers-only track-and-field day is called in Chinglish by my colleagues, is a once-a-year tradition where all the teachers compete in races and relays on the school track. Expectations were high for us, the foreign teachers, as our predecessor had carried the 800-meter run for two years in a row, which all of our colleagues haven’t forgotten to remind us of whenever the sports meeting comes up in conversation.

The events I had signed up for—the 400 and 800 meter races, the longest races to be held—were to begin in a matter of 20 minutes. Yet I was all the way across town, blithely enjoying a orangelike drink more than a twenty-minute cab ride away. I had missed the sports meeting.

Meanwhile across town, back in the apartment only 100 meters from the track, David, having just finished a large lunch of friend vegetables and egg, was enjoying a piece of wheat bread and had almost finished his box of milk when he received a text message from a fellow teacher upset that we were not at the sports meeting.

Throwing on his running clothes, David sprinted out to the track and won the 400 meter race with the taste of fried egg still on his breath making him want to vomit.

So why didn’t we know about the sports meeting?

China writers have long noted that China is a land of many secerets, and, as David and I have found, the extent of the secrecy extends to everyday affairs, though most of the time information is not so much withheld by secretive government offices but rather just not effectively disseminated.

As it turns out, we should have known that there is a blackboard in the Senior 2 office (where we haven’t been assigned a desk) where the class principle writes the events and information in chalk each week. We discovered this not at our half-hour orientation at the beginning of the year, but from the teacher who had told us we missed the sports meeting.

Information is hard to come by in all sorts of contexts in our school, as is the case with the dates of our vacations. We learned from a fellow teacher this month that the school officially spreads the schedule of vacation days on the school website “Sunday night or Monday morning” of the same week.

It seems that in reality most information is not gained through official channels, but rather through word of mouth from teacher to teacher or student to student. And, as foreign teachers, David and I are more socially isolated and therefore out of the information loop at our school.

If I decide to stay another year at The Affiliated High School of South China Normal University, I promise I’ll look at the chalk board in the Senior 2 teachers’ office and try my best to read the scribbled characters proclaiming each week’s events.

Dear colleagues: Please accept my apology for missing The Affiliated High School of South China Normal University 2007 Teachers’ Sports Meeting.


Thomas Talhelm

December 17, 2007

The Blacklisting at the Hands of the East Water Delivery Company

The foreign teachers at The Affiliated High School of South China Normal University were blacklisted last week by the company that sells and delivers drinking water to campus for not keeping up with payments. Or so we can piece together, as the East Water Delivery Company’s story keeps changing each time we call.

Chinese people often have a distaste for direct confrontation, and I suspect (their salespeople’s story keeps changing) that our blacklisting at the hands of the East Water Delivery Company stems from their not wanting to confront us about last month’s bill.

Things heated up when we ordered water last month and were not home “in the afternoon” when we were told it would be delivered, since we were at class. The barrels of water—too cumbersome to carry back to the headquarters—were left outside our door, and we’ve been enjoying the free water for the last few weeks.

We had water delivered outside our door the previous month, and we paid the full tab the next time the delivery man delivered water, but things changed this past Thursday when David called the East Water Delivery Company to order more water.

“Hi, this is the foreign teacher at Hua Fu. I’d like to order some water,” David started.

“That’s impossible,” the salesperson said mysteriously.

“Umm, so you’re not in business anymore? Then why are you still answering the phone?” David asked.

“Well, the water machine’s broken,” the salesperson responded, getting irritated that David was pressing the issue.

“Is it going to be fixed? Can’t we just place an order and then you send it as soon as the machine’s fixed?” David asked.

“No we can’t,” the salesperson responded, and, confused, David hung up.

David tried calling on Friday with the same result, but when I called the following Monday I tried a new tack: not mentioning us as the foreign teachers but rather simply as our apartment number. Magically, the story changed:

“Hi, I’d like water delivered,” I said in my best Chinese.

“OK, where?” the salesperson asked.

“Hua Fu High school, apartment 205,” I said.

“OK,” she replied, but after the words left her lips she paused, caught herself and added: “Oh, you’re the foreign teachers, right?”

“We are,” I admitted.

“Well, you’ll have to find a different company. We’re going out of business,” she said.

Perhaps the East Water Delivery Company is going out of business, but the changing story upon the revelation of our identities, combined with the mysteries that come out of people’s aversion to confrontation suggests that we might just have been blacklisted instead.

Ku Hung-Ming wrote in “The Spirit of the Chinese People” that the Chinese spirit is one of delicacy, and I believe the same sort of delicacy he meant includes the aversion to confrontation that might have caused the salespeople to change their story.

China’s often full of unsolvable mysteries, but this one has a clear solution: when the 4 barrels to be delivered tomorrow have all been used, I’ll put on my best female voice and make a call to East Water Delivery Company in Guangzhou, explaining that last semester’s cheapskate foreign teachers were fired and have been replaced by honest, upstanding newcomers.

December 21, 2007

Behind on the Same Track or On One All Its Own?

After my recent entry on the ever-pervasive control the school has on its students, my father sent me a message touching on an argument that has pervaded nearly every curiosity I have about China: that perhaps the control is just a product of a traditional culture and will soon be erased as China modernizes and gets all the trappings of a modernized society.

My father echoed what I had written about the similarity between my school and 1950’s America, although my father isn’t quite old enough to have attended college in 1950. At the University of Michigan, he said:

“Men could come and go at all hours, but female visitors were not allowed in the residential areas. ‘Dorm mothers’ lived in each house (wing) of the dorm and were supposed to set cultural norms for the dorm. We had Resident Assistants on each floor to enforce rules if necessary. Men were not allowed in residential areas of women’s dorms, and their dorms were completely closed at 11 or 12.”

I remember being struck by a similar idea when I was eating lunch with a group of French, Americans, and Chinese in Yunnan province. Our Chinese friend commented that the tipping required at the foreign restaurant we were eating at wasn’t a part of Chinese culture, to which one of the French responded, “Oh, you’ll get that some day too,” the implication being that tipping is a sort of inevitable result of modernization.

Tipping is a pretty silly custom to claim to be inextricably tied with modernization, but I think the basic argument is fascinating. In fact, the cross-cultural psychology research I’ve conducted in China has addressed this issue, trying to uncover social differences between developed areas of China, like Beijing and Shanghai, and underdeveloped areas like coal-mining Shanxi province.

Perhaps we are all converging at the point of a homogenized global culture under the influence of modernization and globalization. If so, many of the differences I see aren’t so much a product of Chinese culture and character, but rather just characteristics that most every traditional society has.

This, I’m convinced, is the case with Chinese attitudes toward homosexuality and mental illness, both of which seem to be slowly turning from problems only decadent Western societies have, to legitimate issues of social equality to be addressed, although the changes are slow.

But ultimately I think that at least for the time being, we don’t have to resign ourselves to conjecture about the future. Instead, we can look at traditional Asian cultures that have modernized in the last century like Japan and South Korea to find the answer.

As it turns out, heaps of cross-cultural psychology research show that Japanese thought and social structure are still qualitatively different from the West. For example, Japan has imported large corporate business structures, but retained a distinct Japanese structure of interdependence and connectedness.

Thus, it seems that China, although changing, will always be China, instead of slipping into a globalized McChina. And furthermore, the parts of Chinese society that do change, will change in a distinctly Chinese way, so that perhaps the students in the all-male dorms of South China Normal University next door shouldn’t wait with baited breath at the prospect of the American rebellion style of my father’s generation: the panty raid.

My dad compared the Autumn Rebellion I described at my school with the agitation for social change at his school at Michigan: “The students even had their own rebellions against the system, in the form of panty raids, usually on warm April or May evenings after being cooped up all winter. Masses of men would march to the hill and chant for women to throw panties from their windows.”

If they’re so lucky, my students’ future children can wait for the day their fathers are comfortable enough to describe their college-age panty raids and other pranks to them. Or perhaps they’re not looking forward to that change.

December 27, 2007

My Old Friend: Kuai Di

There are times when I feel pretty proud of my progress with the Chinese language and feel confident that I could live a smooth lifetime in Chinese if I so desired. There are other times, though, when I’m reminded of just how far I still have to go.

A month into my time in Guangzhou, I was near the pedestrian-only gaggle of lights and shops that is Beijing Avenue (a bit like a tamed-down and car-free version of Times Square) and my cell phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize. I answered in Chinese, since numbers I don’t recognize tend to be from Chinese speakers, and the caller introduced himself: “Hey, I’m Kuai Di!”

As I discovered only after minutes of painful conversation, ‘kuai di,’ although it happened to have the right number of syllables for a Chinese name, was not a name, but rather meant ‘express delivery.’ The man who was calling was me at the lobby of my apartment to deliver a package, and wanted me to come out and get it. But instead of explaining this, the man kept repeating, “I’m kuai di. Kuai di!”

And thus I racked my brains to think of where I had met someone named Kuai Di. Cell phone numbers are often given out as easily as hello’s in China, so I’ve become accustomed to giving my cell phone number to people I’m confident have no intention of ever calling me.

But now it seemed that I had been ambushed by someone who had decided to actually call me, so I decided to pretend as though I knew who Kuai Di was and see if I could figure out who he was in the course of the conversation. Considering that ‘kuai di’ actually means ‘express delivery’ the conversation sounded a bit like this:

“Hello?” “Hi, I’m express delivery!” “Oh, express delivery! How have you been?” “What? I’m express delivery. Express delivery!” “I know, I know! I didn’t forget! How have you been recently? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.” “Listen, is anyone home? I’m at your place.”

At this point, I got worried at the prospect of an unkown Chinese man waiting outside my apartment wanting to know whether someone was at home or not, especially considering that no one was home and I was across town. I decided to stall:

“Maybe someone’s home. What do you want to do?” “What? I’m express delivery! Express delivery!”

Exasperated, I handed my cell phone to the Chinese friend I was with and soon discovered my error. “He’s trying to deliver a package to your place. I’ll just tell him to leave it with the guard.”

Sometimes I feel pretty confident that my Chinese is good enough to navigate daily life in China, but every once in a while I get a shocking reminder of how far from perfect my Chinese really is. On the upside, though, I guess that means that I can cross Food Delivery, Water Guy, and Express Delivery off the guest list for my Christmas party.

December 28, 2007

Chinese Indirectness and My Free Pimple Progress Reports

During a recent weekly meeting with my Chinese friend I call Confucius, we sat on the curb on the campus of neighboring South China Normal University to have a discussion about Chinese society. While we were speaking, a Chinese woman loitering nearby loitered slowly in our direction, pretending in her loitering that she wasn’t trying to eavesdrop on our conversation.

Fearing the inevitable scripted conversation involving where I’m from, what I’m doing in China, why I can speak Chinese, and the socially obligatory fending off of the flattery of my Chinese skills, I tried to ignore the woman’s presence and focus on my conversation with Confucius. But soon enough the woman forced her way into our conversation.

The Chinese propensity toward flattery was not to be broken, but after successfully denying, in good Chinese style, several compliments about my Chinese, I finally broke and failed to dispute one of the compliments. “Wow,” she said, “You’re Chinese is even more standard than some Chinese people.” “That’s kind of true,” I replied, relating a quick story of my confusion at the local Cantonese accent that muddles the distinction between words in Mandarin, the national language, at times rendering words like ‘four’ and ‘ten’ indistinguishable—a slip up that my teachers in Beijing never would have accepted.

After the obligatory exchange of cell phone numbers, as soon as the woman was out of earshot, my friend Confucius admonished me. “You know, when you agreed that your Mandarin is more standard than even some Chinese people’s, that was rude. You shouldn’t say that,” Confucius said.
“But it’s true,” I said, defending my comment. “That doesn’t matter,” Confucius replied. “It was rude.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nearly every China writer has quoted one of Confucius’s most famous sayings, “It is such a delight to have friends coming from afar,” to demonstrate how important hospitality and politeness are emphasized as Chinese virtues.

Yet, I could not have planned a better situation to point out the seeming contradiction between the famed Chinese polite indirectness and the custom Chinese people have of pointing out others’ weight, health, and complexion problems right to others.

When we had found another curb across campus to sit on, Confucius stared at my face, pointed, and said, “You’ve got a lot pimples! You should really eat more green beans. It’ll help take care of that.” I had to surpress my irritation and embarrassment.

Confucius’s frankness was nothing new. His frankness was no different from the frankness of Chinese people who have told other Princeton in Asia fellows that they are too fat or the frankness of the mother of my American roomate’s Chinese girlfriend. Nearly every phone conversation he has with her mother contains at least one suggestion for remedying his breakouts, and my friend often comes home from visits to her parents’ house with bags full of creams for his face and Chinese herbs that turn his urine red.

This contradiction was a great example of difficulty of sorting out cultures and the differences between reading about cultures and experiencing them. Before coming to China, I had the impression that the Chinese were very polite and indirect, and so I imagined every social interaction as polite and indirect. However, since I’ve been here, I’ve had to amend that general rule with exceptions in certain cases.

The fact is, though, I’ve found that these exceptions to general rules often carry interesting insight into the values of a culture, since they represent cases where two values conflict and one wins out.

In the case of constant updates on the progress of my pimples, I’ve surmised that the general rule of polite indirectness is being overruled by a deeper Chinese value of caring for others. The purpose of pointing out how many new pimples have broken out in the last week is less about pointing out my flaws and more about showing their concern for my health.

This makes sense because when Chinese people point out my deficiencies in health, they almost always follow it up with a recommendation for how to remedy the problem. Chinese people are constantly reminding each other to bundle up to not catch cold, to eat certain foods to balance their internal heat (a traditional Chinese medicine belief), and to not let air conditioners or fans blow directly onto you to prevent sore throats. In the case of my pimples, the following week Confucius invited me over for a type steamed green bean soup that he assured me would help with my acne.

As I met Confucius that evening at the back gate of the university, I looked forward to completing his course of remedy and moving onto to topics other than the quality of my health. As luck would have it, though, that night the weather turned unseasonably cold and rainy for Guangzhou, and, seeing me waiting in only pants and a T-shirt, Confucius admonished me for not wearing warmer clothes and practically trying to catch a cold.

It seems I’ll never escape the free medical advice that abounds in China, although perhaps I’ll take this custom back to the US and remind my friends of just how many new pimples they get each week. You might want to take extra care to wash your face before you think about visiting me.