Friday, December 21, 2012

A very American Christmas

My friend and former student, Xiao Li, came down for a visit yesterday. Li is like a little brother to me — smart, hardworking, honest and loving. Both he and Ma Lei represent, to me, the best of Chinese culture. Ma Lei loves him as much as I do, and she really appreciated having a Chinese friend to speak with.

We made the evening into a little Christmas. Ma Lei made our Christmas dinner: Chinese-style pork ribs, chicken wings in Coca-Cola sauce, and Chinese noodles. That's not quite the American tradition, but the food was fantastic. It was Li's first home-cooked Chinese meal since last summer, and Ma Lei is a great cook, so he ate like a teenager.

We had a little Christmas gift exchange, which was a first-ever for both our Chinese family members. Ma Lei was as excited as a little girl opening her presents. Li got a lot fewer gifts, but he was very happy to be included in the family.

It was a strange and lovely family, two Americans and two Chinese celebrating American Christmas by eating a Chinese dinner and exchanging gifts made in China. I guess nothing could be more American than that.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dinner at P.F. Chang's

Dinner last night was at P.F. Chang's. Ma Lei kept asking "where are the Chinese people?" There were none: not on the staff, not in the kitchen, and certainly not eating there.

We ordered Mahi Mahi, a broccoli/chicken stir-fry, and an eggplant dish, along with a side of fried green beans and two starters: crunchy lettuce rolls, and something called fiery wontons. It all looked lovely, but none of it got Ma Lei's approval. The eggplant was approximating tolerable, but everything else was at perhaps the McDonald's level in her eyes. I understood her criticism, but to me the food was okay.

My mom had called ahead to tell them that this was Ma Lei's first meal in America, so we got a bit of royal treatment. Two managers came over to welcome her to the restaurant and ask how the food was. She was polite, if not truthful.

The first manager said "Welcome to America! That's 'nin hao,' right?" That's not quite right, but he was close enough to elicit a friendly laugh from Ma Lei. ("Nin hao" is "hello." "Welcome" is "huangying.") After he'd left, Ma Lei laughed about the manager of a Chinese restaurant barely knowing how to say "hello" in Mandarin.

The managers comped us a free dessert of coconut ice cream with fried bananas and other mixed fruit. Ma Lei correctly predicted that this would taste good, since it wasn't Chinese food. She wondered aloud why they didn't comp the whole meal. I suspect if word got out they'd done that, tomorrow evening everybody with a yellow face in Chicago would be lining up with fake Chinese accents to collect their free meal!

Ma Lei has a way of being bluntly honest yet gracious about her disapproval. She kept saying (in Chinese) "this is terrible," then (in English) "Sorry! Sorry!" with a big apologetic smile. As we left the restaurant, though, she suggested that she'd rather stick with American food while she's in America.

First impression of America

After cleaning up from that long flight, we went to the famous Woodfield Mall. On the drive, Ma Lei's face was glued to the window like one of those old Garfield stuffed dolls with suction cups on its feet.

She was amazed at the traffic, at how orderly it was and how few cars there were for such beautiful roads. (Don't worry, she'll see plenty of horrible traffic and horrible roads soon enough.)

She was dazzled by the Christmas lights everywhere, and how much prettier they are than the Christmas decorations we have in China. She kept saying "Santa Claus! Santa Claus!" like an excited little girl.

She was intrigued by the houses in this middle-class area. Little old brick houses, sturdy but in no way impressive, amazed her. China doesn't have many nice little single-family homes like that, with a yard and a garage for everyone. "I thought those were only in fairy tales," she said.

She loved seeing the places that China does have (such as McDonald's) and the many that China doesn't. The giant stores (Dick's Sporting Goods, Von Maur department store) impressed her, but she's just as curious to see what KFC is like in America.

She was even amazed at the car we were in (which would be too expensive for a middle-class person in China), and at the mere fact of being driven around an American city by an American woman. "I've only seen that before in movies," she said, "and now here I am."

Flying Japan vs. America

The difference between our China-Tokyo flight and our Tokyo-Chicago one was obvious immediately when we boarded in Tokyo. This plane (an American Airlines mega-jet) was obviously a little long in the tooth, the seats not nearly as modern and comfortable.

The flight attendants, while friendly enough, were far less attentive than the Japan Air Lines women had been. Ma Lei asked why they were so old and unattractive, whereas Asian-based airlines all have young, beautiful flight attendance. "Probably," she said, "the Americans don't pay enough to get pretty girls to apply."

My Chinese isn't really good enough to explain that it's illegal to discriminate against the fat and ugly in an American company, but I think she understood what I was trying to say. It took a couple of tries, though, because that concept is so foreign to a Chinese mind. In this particular instance, I'm with China!

Then the babies started crying, then shouting, then howling, as babies inevitably do on miserably long flights. Ma Lei was first annoyed that someone would bring a small baby onto a plane — Chinese people seldom do that — then wondered why those parents don't smack them for crying — the Chinese often do that. At one point there were three babies wailing a syncopated reggae beat with voices like fighting cats.

There was very little sleep had by poor Ma Lei. She's never before been on an international flight, and was not prepared for the rigors of 11+ hours in one plane. She perked up as soon as we landed, but she's due for a good long sleep now!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ma Lei's American adventure begins

An image of a yangguizi — foreign devil
Greetings from Tokyo!

I suppose I can add another country to my list of places I've set foot, though a stop at the airport doesn't really constitute much of a visit. It's Ma Lei's first time outside China, though, so setting foot even on the kind of universal no-man's-land which is the International Terminal of any major airport has a little more significance.

Ma Lei has been extremely nervous about every part of this trip, the planning for which began six weeks ago, in early November. Sure, she's excited about it, but she's also frightened, and nervous, and anxious about any of the myriad things that can go wrong when traveling. China has an especially long history of seeing itself as the only place where civilized people exist, where civilized people can be safe, and where anyone can be trusted. The outside world has only in the past 100 years or so (and inconsistently even then) been seen as anything other than tribute payments for China's emperor and tales of giant, hairy, foul-smelling, beak-nosed monsters known as yangguizi — foreign devils.

Of course, Ma Lei doesn't see me, my family, or Americans in general as devils, but we are foreign in the extreme, and thus venturing out into a world surrounded by us, created by us, operating by our rules and in our language, was bound to be anxiety-ridden. I don't think I would understand her feelings nearly as well — since Americans after all are blithely confident that our rules will apply anywhere in the world — except that my adventure in Shanhaiguan two months after I'd arrived in China proved very dramatically that this is not the case.

The fears were varied, and most passed quickly, as the momentary stand-in for a generalized anxiety is wont to do. Her visa would be denied. She would be turned away by the Customs official at the border. She would get sick in America. My family would hate her. She wouldn't be able to communicate with her family. She would starve to death because the food would be terrible. (This last one persisted, spurred by reports from not-too-adventurous Chinese people who swore that all food in America is terrible.) The ticket agent in Dalian as we checked in for our first connecting flight, to Tokyo, added yet another one by asking if Ma Lei had a Japanese visa.

The first anxiety attack I was able to sign on to came toward the end of that first flight, when there was a weather delay that forced us into a circling queue north of a nasty storm in Tokyo. At one point, the pilot told us that in cas
e they couldn't get clearance to land within 20 minutes, they were going to have to put in at Tokyo's other airport, which would have done who-knows-what for our ability to get to Chicago. 

About two minutes later we got our clearance, and as I write this we're sitting at the departure gate. 

As soon as we landed, we had an instant role reversal: for the first time I was Ma Lei's translator and shepherd, rather than the other way around.

It's always such a shock when one gets out of China. The clothes are so much better (and more varied), the hair colors and styles are so different, the girls dress like adult (and sexy) women, not like schoolgirls clinging to childhood. And on the flip side, no one pays any attention to me.

Another thing — public bathrooms with toilets. and PAPER! and SOAP!!! And Western-style toilets, rather than a hole in the floor that you squat over.

Then there's that strange little button on the side of the toilet, with a graphic of a pair of buttocks and a spray of water, which does something too bizarre for words.

This was all a double shock for Ma Lei, who comes from a country in which everything, and everyone, is squeezed by design into the same identical mold. For a less-independent person, I can imagine it would be frightening in the extreme. Ma Lei, though, has the curiosity of someone with utter confidence in herself, her own resourcefulness, and my trustworthiness to take care of her.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Cross-cultural communications

Once in a while I have students in the Support Center who want to talk about the differences between America and China. When dealing with students I try to be circumspect about those areas where I disapprove of Chinese culture, and to emphasize those areas which I love and respect. I don't think it's right for a foreign professor to come to China and dump anti-China propaganda on the students of this country. However, sometimes the cultural conflict becomes unavoidable, even if it's not exactly discussed overtly.

Yesterday, a student named Keren came in to talk about opportunities to study in America for her Ph.D. After we'd discussed the various options, how she needed to prepare, and so on, she wanted to discuss some of the cultural differences she would need to prepare for.

We talked about individualism versus collectivism in the education systems, and the broader range of choice available to American students. She lamented the fact that our university doesn't allow her to take liberal arts classes (though they've got plenty of "Marxist philosophy" thrown at them).

Chinese people, though, are steeped in the art of balancing, and the supposed benefits of collectivism are cemented in their minds, so she went on to say "I think Western individualism has some negative consequences."

Now I should note something about Chinese conversational dynamics. The Chinese are taught never to assert something without qualification. Rather, they raise "both sides" of the issue. Often they lead with what they don't believe, then follow with what they actually do.

Sometimes when dealing with foreigners, Chinese people who don't actually agree with the Party line will nonetheless present as established truths things that are shockingly offensive to the other side, but with that same "I see both sides" mentality. This might be a trap, or it might be an invitation from a student who wants to hear the official dogma debunked. It's often very hard to tell the difference until after you're in the fryer.

It's hard to know what to do in these cases, because I don't want to trash China, and I don't want to trash Chinese culture. Yet I also don't want to be neutral with regard to demonstrably false, propaganda-driven full-frontal assaults on Western culture. So I typically try to use a kind of intellectual judo.

Keren raised the usual arguments, though with a more thoughtful spin because she reads the BBC news. (That's very rare, for a Chinese student.)

First, she talked about violence in America. That's obviously a very real problem, though nowhere near as ubiquitous as the Chinese think it is. I pointed out to her that the US has a free press that loves to talk about every case of violence, whereas the Chinese press cannot do so. I told her that I have personally seen more violence in China than I ever did in America. I pointed out that certain whole categories of violence, such as domestic abuse, are accepted in China but punished in America. (I also mentioned that America is only 30-40 years ahead of China in this regard, since such things used to be tolerated in my country, too.) I told her she'll have to be careful in America, because there are dangerous places, but overall it's not an unsafe place. She nodded intently.

Then she raised the other big one I hear frequently: Americans don't care about their families as much as Chinese people do.

This is a classic case of what Ayn Rand termed a "frozen abstraction" — i.e., a concept or principle that is arbitrarily reduced to only certain of its proper referents, freezing out all other essentially similar instances. The Chinese (most of them) do, indeed, love their families, a love they express through Confucian obedience to their parents well into adulthood. While the extremes of parental rule are in the past, parents still exercise control or at least veto power over such crucial life decisions as a student's major in university, career, and choice of marital partner.

I find this line of discussion especially offensive, because I happen to come from a large and loving family. Of course I don't obey my parents — they wouldn't want me to — but I sure as heck love and respect them, and I consult with them on every important decision.

And if you want to see a family that loves each other, look to my uncle Charles's family, based in the Dallas area. His kids (four of them) and grandkids (six) do everything they can together, they squabble sometimes, and they take care of each other in times of need. Most of all, though, they love each other. At a holiday gathering, it's quite normal for 20-30 people from all reaches of the family to descend upon one house for an all-day party.

So there's a big part of me that bristles every time a Chinese person tells me that — just because we don't allow our parents to dictate every major decision of our lives — Americans don't love our families as much as Chinese people do. In fact, one could make a case that American parents love their children more than Chinese do, since they respect us to make our own decisions on crucial life issues.

One could make that case, but I don't, because I think that, too, would be a frozen abstraction. To love is to value, and valuing is conditioned by one's philosophical understanding of what values are. To the Chinese, with a collectivist and philosophically risk-averse view of values, it seems perfectly loving for parents to order their child not to major in philosophy, not to marry a man from a poor family, not to move overseas, etc.

At this point in my conversation with the student, I made a major pedagogical mistake. In making the point that Westerners see respecting their children's choices as a form of demonstrating love for them, I chose a horrible, horrible example.

A Chinese acquaintance of mine, I said, was in love with an English man who treated her very kindly, spoke fluent Mandarin, and planned to spend the rest of his life in China; but her parents insisted that she must not marry a foreigner, so they broke up. While this wasa perfect case in point, and it should be a great example for a young woman who (by definition, in China) is seeking storybook love (and who almost certainly adores Romeo and Juliet, which they've all read in Chinese), it led to a catastrophe ten minutes later in the conversation.

The signs of trouble should have been immediate. Rather than put herself in the young woman's shoes and bemoaning the parents' orders, as I had expected her to do, the student asserted that this girl's parents were right. "Foreigners and Chinese probably should not get married," she said. "They will not understand each other, and will fight too much. Chinese should only marry Chinese."

The student probably doesn't exactly believe this. Almost all ideas are provisional, in the minds of most Chinese students (with the possible exceptions of the hatred of Japan and the love of China and of money). Unlike America's young hotheads, Chinese youth are prone to put forward ideas they don't fully accept or endorse, then back away from them as warranted by experience or expediency.

Whereas American teens are like cable-news firebrands, Chinese youths are like centrist politicians. They have tendencies, they have interests, they have passions, but they don't have convictions. Whereas Western youths are prone to — as Plato said — nip and tear at arguments like puppies, Chinese youths are more likely to play chess with them. If one argument, like one chess piece, gets "taken," they'll modify their stance and continue playing the game.

With that in mind, I did not start a new argument on the subject of dating foreigners. I did not challenge her on the potentially soul-crushing consequences when parents make decisions that are inappropriate for their children. Instead, I made a friendly tactical retreat, granting her that parents often have better judgment than young people do, but "Americans think" that the final decision should belong with the person whose life is at stake.

If American parents hate the guy their daughter is dating, I told her, the last thing they'll do is to tell her so. Telling her not to date that guy would virtually guarantee that she'll run off to Vegas and marry the bastard. I made the shocking suggestion that, in this respect, American parents are more socially subtle than Chinese parents. That got her attention for a moment, and her eyes, which had been avoiding mine ever since the potentially divisive topics had started to come up, suddenly latched on mine for a second.

A few minutes later, I used my wife's family as an example for some point I was making. Then the student asked the fatal question: "Is your wife American?"

In all innocence I told her no, my wife is Chinese. It literally didn't occur to me that this was a problem until after I'd said it.

Suddenly, the student's face went blank. Her eyes got huge and round, and she quickly stammered something off-topic. She thanked me for the help, packed her bag, and fled the support center as quickly as she could.

It's sad, because I think this student felt terribly ashamed, but she had no need to. I wasn't personally offended at her comment, and indeed I agree that most cross-cultural marriages are highly problematic. Now, though, she likely will not return to the Support Center for the help she needs in order to prepare for study abroad. She may end up paying thousands of dollars to some agency that won't give her as good advice as I could give her for free, and she may end up feeling that talking with foreigners is fraught with social danger.

Later that evening, as we dined on wonton soup and lamb kebabs, I told Ma Lei about my encounter with the student. She nodded with a mock-serious face and told me "The student was right. Chinese women shouldn't marry yangguizi (foreign devils)." Then she punched me in the arm, and we caught a taxi to go home and walk the little dogs.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Three points of Chinese language, that will add up to an anecdote that I found funny. Dunno if the rest of you will think it's as humorous as I did.

1) In Chinese, you can ask a simple question in the form of a declarative sentence. For example, you can say "We'll go to dinner now, good/not good," and that means "Would you like to go to dinner now?"

2) Many expressions that in English would be a single word are, in Chinese, combinations of characters (usually two). So for example, "clear" or "understandable" is "ming bai," which literally means "bright white."

3) If you want to negate one of those two-syllable words, you often need to put the word "not" — "bu," in Chinese — in between the first and the second syllables. For example, "hao kan" means "good-looking." So if Ma Lei asks me if something or someone is "hao bu hao kan," that means "good looking, or not?"

Ma Lei has learned "Okay" as a word for "good," or "hao" in Chinese. So the other day, she and I were having a rather agitated mock-fight about what to do for dinner. As usual, I wanted to go somewhere more expensive, while she wanted to go for the cheapest possible alternative. "Let's go to the cheap restaurant," she said in Chinese, and then in defiant Chinglish: "Oh-bu-okay?"

I completely cracked up, and I have now adopted "oh-bu-okay" as my new favorite in-joke. I share it with you-all, in case any of you enjoy it as much as I did.

And by the way, we did end up going to the cheap restaurant after all.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Charming Mendicant

Hi all,

This year my classroom teaching responsibilities have been reduced to only two freshman-level reading courses. The bulk of my time is spent as Coordinator of the Foundation Year Support Center, helping freshman students understand the assignments for their classes in Reading, Speaking and Listening, Writing, and Business English. Working in the Support Center has given me a tremendous appreciation for the progress our students make over the course of a year in our program, because for the first time I see where they start. 

It's been a first, eye-opening experience working this closely with freshmen. While a few of them start with impressive English ability, the majority are nowhere near ready to take university classes in English. They've typically studied English in the Chinese way: cramming their heads full of out-of-context vocabulary (by means of which to pass vocabulary exams), learning strategies to guess which parts of an essay to quote (by means of which to pass "reading comprehension" exams without actually comprehending anything), and perhaps memorizing a few sentence patterns (by means of which to pass essay-writing exams without actually knowing how to write an essay). Most have had 6+ years of mandatory English classes, yet never actually spoken an appreciable amount of English.

Yesterday I was visited by a charming girl with wide, mendicant eyes and the manner of a hopeful ascetic eagerly offering herself to the whip in pursuit of enlightenment. She came in silently and stood next to the chair, parts of her body physically pulsing with a war between fear and hope, until I invited her to sit. She quickly slipped into the chair, as if afraid to disturb the air too much. She filled-in the visitor's log wordlessly. She had a slight exotic but normal-sounding English name: Lia.

When I asked what she wanted to talk about, she spoke for the first time, pausing carefully between words: "My English is-a very pooh." Though this last word sounded exactly like "Pooh" in the Christopher Robins stories, her pronunciation was clear and deliberate, and she grinned proudly once she had gotten the words out. This may have been the first sentence she'd ever spoken to a foreigner. 

But she didn't answer my question aloud, perhaps not wanting to tempt fate by attempting a second English sentence. Instead, she silently handed me her copy of Holes, the adolescent novel we're using as primary text for our reading class. It's fortunate that, although she is not one of my students, I am also teaching reading, so I am quite familiar with the book. I asked if she had any specific questions about the book.

I always ask students if they have any specific questions, but the ones whose English is "very Pooh" almost never do. It's hard for me not to take it personally, because surely anyone can come up with something specific — a particular word or expression the student doesn't understand, if nothing else — but I realize these students have been trained to answer questions and never, ever ask them. 

Lia surprised me. Silently, almost solemnly, she opened her book. Her book was pristine — no markings, no underlinings, not even a fingerprint — yet she flipped instantly to page 23 and pointed immediately to the word "Armpit," the unlovely nickname of one of the characters in the book. The gesture was done so quickly, she had to have memorized the exact location on the page. I became slightly self-conscious: I wondered how much she had practiced for this meeting, and hoped I could live up to whatever fantasy study-session she'd envisioned.

She hadn't asked an actual question, so I asked her one: "Do you know what an armpit is?" She smiled again, nodded, and pointed to one of hers.

I explained that this is the nickname of one of the boys, then asked, "Do you know what a nickname is?" She was less sure of herself this time, perhaps because a nickname is something she couldn't point to, but she mumbled something that might have been the right answer. Just to be sure, I explained it to her a little bit, and she nodded.

"Why might the boys give their friend a nickname like Armpit?" I asked. 

Lia got very serious, brow furrowed, eyes darting back and forth as if searching an invisible vocabulary list. Finally she smiled nervously and shook her head. "Sorry?" She asked.

I tried again: "If he has that nickname, what must he be like?" then clarified: "What is he like," because I figured "must… be" would confuse her. This time she smiled brightly yet briefly in understanding the question, but her brow furrowed again as she tried to come up with an answer, and again her eyes searched some invisible textbook for an explanation. She gave up and shook her head back and forth once, quick as a bunny, embarrassed but still smiling gamely.

I explained in Chinese that this boy must smell bad, then made a face and sniffed loudly at my own armpit. She nodded that she understood, but I could see in her face that she didn't, not really. The concept of giving a friend such an insulting nickname is too far from her Chinese context, in which children are given names like "Flower Bud" and "Shining Future." She clearly knew what I meant by saying Armpit must smell bad, but she couldn't process it.

She asked one more question about the book, which I was able to explain a bit more easily. 

Then she sat and waited, straight-backed, not saying a word, perhaps not sure how to ask, as if waiting for me to explain something — anything — to her. She clearly wasn't done, but wasn't able to ask anything more.

Not knowing what else to do, I turned to the first page of the book and read her the first sentence: "There is no lake at Camp Green Lake." That's a classic writer's "hook," almost too mechanical a one, but perhaps effective. I would have loved to have talked about authorial intentions and the use of irony, but obviously it would have been of no use to my audience of one, so I tried to at least raise the concept in a less abstract way.

I read the sentence to Lia, then asked her, "Is there something strange about that sentence?" She didn't understand the question. I asked again: "Is that a normal thing to say?" She didn't understand "normal," so I tried "common."

She pondered for a while, her facial muscles going in all directions like hamsters chasing seeds, then she settled on the safest answer: she nodded "yes," and smiled sweetly.

That was wrong, so I tried again. 

I sought for a good metaphor, and thought about Dalian, where it rains a lot and everything grows well. "If I called part of Dalian the Dalian desert, would that be a common thing to say?" 

She started to nod yes, but I resorted to a Chinese teacher method and gave her the answer by shaking my head and frowning "no." Dalian is in no way a desert. She stopped nodding, stopped smiling, and asked timidly, "No?"

I smiled great-big and nodded, then pointed back at the first sentence. "So if someone says 'There is no lake at Camp Green Lake,' is that a normal or common thing to say?" Again she hesitated, but finally she reluctantly pushed forward the answer... "No?"

"Yes! Exactly!" I said, with exaggerated excitement. Her face instantly uncreased and brightened with surprise. 

I asked her about the word "mystery," which she knew in the sense that she could tell me what it meant in words, but she had no real concept of what it really meant. I told her that this sentence is a mystery, and she isn't supposed to know what it means yet, but the author will tell her the information to understand it later.

She frowned again, and the hamsters ran around under her skin, and her shoulders rocked back and forth asymmetrically, but she finally got it. She repeated back to me, uncertainly, "I … don't… suppose to understand. It's Mystery!" I said yes, and her face lit up again. I made sure to say that she will understand the answer to the mystery later in the book, but for now the reader is expected to have unanswered questions. That's a tough concept for a Chinese student to understand. 

I asked her what information the author was telling us in the first chapter (only a page long). Even as I asked the question, I realized it was unfair: too abstract a question. 

She couldn't answer, so I asked her to take out her notebook and write down the basic questions "Who, what, when, where, and why." 

Her notebook was pristine, as if she hadn't a clue how to take notes. That's not unusual: Chinese students are not taught to take notes. Taking notes is a conceptual skill. They are given lists of things to memorize, and that's what they do. So I wrote the first notes for her.

Across the top of the page, I wrote the five "wh" questions. Down the side of the page, I wrote Chapter 1, 2, 3, etc. Then I asked her to fill in what information about each of those questions she could glean from each of the first chapters. She immediately got that Chapter 1 was all about "Where," the setting of the novel, so we worked together to fill in some additional details. On the second page of her notebook I started a vocabulary list, which we turned to frequently as we filled in words and expressions she didn't know.

Chapter 2, only half a page long, contained information about both "Where" — the setting — and "Who" — the main character. This flummoxed her, so it took a long time and a lot of tooth-pulling. So when I asked her, amidst five paragraphs of information about Camp Green Lake, what she could understand about the main character, she couldn't answer me, despite my reading and re-reading the two sentences: "Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before." Neither she nor the hamsters could extract the information that Stanley was from a poor family, because it was embedded in other information about other topics.

It was agonizing, it was maddening, and it was frustrating. But with every new revelation, even as simple as "Stanley is poor," Lia glowed with excitement as if she were Helen Keller understanding the hand character for "water." 

We pressed on for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, pushing through ten pages of the text. I don't think Lia would ever have stopped me, had I pressed her to keep going — not until her face plopped down on the desk in exhaustion — but fortunately my next appointment, a group of 13 students from a different reading class who wanted help understanding a different assignment, arrived before we could find out.

I apologized to Lia for having to end our lesson, though I could see she had absorbed quite as much as she was capable of. As I sent her out, she beamed with excitement over understanding Something New.

I know I will see that girl again, probably at the same time every week, probably with the same frustrating lack of comprehension, and probably with the same hamsters under her skin. I know, too, that she will fall behind in her Business Management class, because she is in no position to understand the text, the instructor's spoken English, or the open-inquiry method of instruction. I hope, though, and I expect based on her attitude, that she will catch up quickly. And maybe, after our program, she will be a fluent English-speaker and (to borrow a phrase) an enquiring mind.


Monday, October 15, 2012

The Accidental Student

A colleague of mine encountered a second-year student — i.e., someone who'd passed through a year's worth of our classes, all of which are taught in English, and not flunked out. Nevertheless, the student seemed to have no English comprehension. On a reading comprehension test, he was stymied by "flower" and the verb "runs."

Asked what the problem was, he asked if he could use Chinese. My friend agreed.

In Chinese, the student explained that in high school, his English teacher was a vicious tyrant, and as a kind of curse on that teacher he'd sworn never to learn English.

When his college entrance exam results came back, with the attached list of schools he could attend, the majority specifically said English was required. Somehow, my Department — which teaches every single one of its classes in English — failed to say so on the brief description sent to potential students, so he chose us as an escape from English. Oops!

The student came from a remote town in far-southern Yunnan province, so he was an outsider even to the Chinese students, who didn't help him understand. It was only two weeks into his freshman year that he realized that he was in for four years of hell.

Can you imagine being at university for two weeks before suddenly discovering that you're supposed to be taking every single one of your courses in a language you not only don't know, but actively hate?

In an American university, such a student would quickly be directed into a program better suited to his interests and abilities. Here, though, there is no such thing as failing even a single class, so the student was processed forward into the second year, despite his having understood nothing whatsoever from any of his classes.

Yet the aspiration of my Department is to be a top-100 internationally-ranked business school. That's going to be a tall order.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

I've seen a lot of fakes, during my time in China, and especially a lot of Snoopy stuff  — none of which, I'm sure, the estate of Charles Schultz ever saw a penny from. But I must say, this is the first time I've seen Spoony!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Dowry Drama

The other day, we got a call asking us to go with Ma Lei’s family to a village near Shenyang, the home village of Ma Lei’s brother’s girlfriend, during the upcoming National Day holiday week. The girlfriend’s family is having a hastily-convened party to celebrate the couple. There will be another wedding in Dalian next year, so this is a kind of pre-wedding for the bride’s family.
This is obviously a momentous gathering, but it would not typically be surprising for a Chinese couple that’s been dating for two years. Casual dating is still taboo in China, so there’s no particular marking of a couple’s engagement. Rather than a single momentous and publicly-announced commitment, Chinese couples from the start are on a slippery slope toward marriage. So the only reason this event is particularly exciting is that, a mere month ago, the couple now to be married had broken up, at the insistence of the young woman’s parents — the very same people who are now hosting the celebration.
Ma Lei’s brother is 27 years old, a nice kid with a broad smile, a good job and, as of just a few weeks ago, his own brand-new apartment. This last is extremely important, because most Chinese girls will only marry a man who owns his own home.
His girlfriend is 23, quite a pleasant girl and, in most people’s opinion, quite beautiful. She comes from an upper-middle-class family and seems to have been a typically pampered Chinese daughter. The Chinese say that, whereas a son is a workhorse, a daughter is like a flower to be watered and cared for, so there were a few bumps the first couple of times she visited the family village. I don’t think she’d ever been expected to help clear the table after a family dinner, for instance, which earned her an angry talking-to from Ma Lei’s father. One thing there are not, in Ma Lei’s family, are spoiled brats (male or female). Despite those early hitches, she eventually figured things out well enough to be accepted into the family. Her name is Cao Dan (曹丹).
The young couple have been together for two years, but they’re a little young to be getting married. The typical age for a woman to marry is 26-28, so it was a slight surprise when, a week or two after our wedding, Cao Dan’s family made the trip to visit Ma Lei’s family.
The families got along as well as is necessary, and probably sometime toward the end of the weekend it was made explicit that neither family would object to the union. It was somewhat remarkable that Cao Dan’s moderately wealthy family would consent to their daughter’s marrying a son of the poor. Many wealthy Chinese families would automatically nix any such union across economic class, especially if the male partner is the one born into poverty.
Shortly before they left, Cao Dan’s family named a dowry. They wanted 40,000 rmb, a bit more than $6000 US, in order to let their daughter marry Ma Lei’s brother.
A demand like this would be incredibly shocking in America, but it’s less so in China. Traditionally, a woman once married was considered to have been absorbed into her husband’s family (or swallowed up by it), and was no longer a member of her birth family. Generally she would see them occasionally, but not often. Ma Lei’s mother, for example, recently paid a month-long visit to her family home in the far north of China, her first such visit in 20 years or so. Hence the husband’s family was, in effect, buying the wife away from her family, repaying them for the expense of raising a girl who would thereafter contribute nothing to their family — and, incidentally, giving parents of girls incentive to see to their proper upbringing so as to command a reasonable dowry when the time came.
But in today’s China, this tradition is (to put it mildly) vestigial. A woman is no longer bound by the Confucian “three subordinations” (to her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her sons after her husband dies). Though they’re not always treated this way, women are now independent persons with the same rights as men, rather than servants to be passed from one household to another. Nowadays, there just isn’t any good reason for a dowry.
In this case, it’s even more unjustified. Ma Lei’s family are poor farmers. They don’t have a water heater, a washing machine, or a computer — let alone a spare $6000 to give to the relatively wealthy family from Shenyang. The effrontery of the demand was made all the more obnoxious by the fact that it took place in the family’s farmhouse, surrounded by ample evidence of its absurdity.
Of course, the girlfriend’s parents have eyes to see that Ma Lei’s family have no money. They likewise know that a 27 year-old young man, particularly one who just bought an apartment, doesn’t have 40,000 rmb in the bank. Hence I’m inclined to suspect that it was slightly more than a coincidence that this demand came a mere couple of weeks after Ma Lei’s marriage to an American. Most Chinese people assume all foreigners are rich, so they probably assumed I’d given Ma Lei’s family a dowry at least as large as the one they were asking for.
Ma Lei got the call from her father late that Sunday afternoon, asking her to help her brother.
Ma Lei is a proud Chinese, and fiercely protective of those parts of Chinese cultural tradition she approves of — such as reverence for her father — but even more fiercely independent. I know of few languages better suited to the expression of anger than Chinese, and Ma Lei wields it for that purpose expertly. Though I didn’t know the substance of the conversation, I knew that I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that phone call, even though it was her own father she was arguing with.
She gave no quarter, during that conversation or afterwards explaining the situation to me. We don’t save money and eat noodles, she told me, to give our money to someone else. “It’s our money, not theirs,” she insisted indignantly. But the strain of conflict with her father was heavy on her, and she slept little that night.
The issue came up again once or twice, not frequently, but it’s been in the background ever since. About a month ago, Brother and his girlfriend came for an overnight visit at our new apartment, their first time staying with us overnight. I don’t know if it was intended as an advertisement for the couple, but a few days later Brother asked Ma Lei to give money for Cao Dan’s family.
Immediately after putting her brother in his place, Ma Lei called Cao Dan to deliver her a long lesson in personal finance. After pointing out the obvious about her parents’ poverty, she listed just a few of the many priorities She and I have for our money, ahead of giving it to the girlfriend’s parents. (To name just one, this was right about the time Ma Lei was going into the hospital for very expensive fertility treatments.) By the end of the conversation the girlfriend had been reduced to tears, but she finally understood that there was to be no dowry for her parents.
A couple of weeks later, the girlfriend’s Renren feed (Chinese Facebook) carried a short, distraught announcement. Her parents had withdrawn their consent for the marriage, so she and Ma Lei’s brother had broken up. (As readers of my writings will know, Chinese parents have veto power over their children’s romantic relationships.)
A week went by, then another. Then Ma Lei’s father got a call from the girl’s mother. “Why did your son break up with our daughter?” Now she’s distraught, she cries all night, she doesn’t sleep.
This time it was Father’s turn to do a little place-putting. Our son did no such thing, Father told them, it was you who broke them up with your demand for money we don’t have.
Suddenly, by magic, not only have the kids gotten back together, but the two families have been called together outside Shenyang for a pre-wedding celebration. As nearly as I understand it, this will not be an actual wedding ceremony — there’s no time for that — but a family party. It’s common in Chinese families for each family to throw its own party, partly to make sure that the money their guests are expected to give will go to the right family.
I think, but I’m not certain, that the couple will perform their legal marriage at this time, but the big ceremony in Dalian will happen next year. In China, unlike in the West, there’s no such thing as a wedding license to be actuated at a civil or religious ceremony. Rather, the registration with the government is one’s legal wedding, and the ceremony is purely pro forma. Some couples wait years after getting legally married before they bother with the big family celebration.
We will, of course, be going along for this quasi-wedding/peace summit between the families. And of course, if anything interesting happens, I will be sure to write it up for your amusement! 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Philosophy in Action interview

Teaching in China: Wednesday Interview on Philosophy in Action Radio On Wednesday evening, I'll be a guest on philosopher Dr. Diana Hsieh's live internet radio show, Philosophy in Action, to discuss "Teaching in China." What can we learn about modern Chinese culture from the experience of an American teaching university students in China? A whole lot! Professor Robert Garmong has a unique perspective on China and Chinese education, as an American teaching English language and Western culture at the Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, in Dalian, China. To join the live broadcast and its chat, just point your browser to Philosophy in Action's Live Studio a few minutes before the show is scheduled to start. By listening live, you can call the show with your questions and experiences, as well as post comments and questions in the text chat. If you miss the live broadcast, you'll find the audio from the episode posted here: 19 September 2012: Teaching in China. Please join us on Wednesday evening for an engaging discussion of "Teaching in China"!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Here's how to piss off the top bosses of the Chinese Ministry of Finance and Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, without even knowing you're doing it.

Earlier today, I noticed that the long wall of poster board which is typical filled with photos of students in tee shirts with fairly bad English, along with stories in Chinese which (as far as I can tell) seem to describe them doing impressive-sounding things, had been replaced by a wall of Communist Party stories — Long March stuff, Mao stuff, Lei Fang stuff, etc. One of my students this morning told me that the Beijing Ministry of Finance was having a big-big-BIG-wig meeting in our department this afternoon, but I'd quite forgotten it. I am sometimes a ben dan — dumb egg.

Our campus has pretty frequent meetings of black-Audi-driving People More Important Than Me, but this time the PMITM's were a lot more important than average.

At an American university, if you had a giant PMITM meeting it would be discussed, perhaps debated (because there would surely be  dissenters), and at the very least announced. Here, the only announcement came the night before: "Please don't use the West Gate of the building [Chinese uses the same word for gate and door], because it will be closed for maintenance." Maintenance — yeah, right.

So in all ignorance, this afternoon I rode my bike in to meet with a student who's interested in studying in America for grad school. I'd volunteered to help her and other people, so my afternoon off of teaching was to spent helping her make study plans.

As the small, little announcement had indicated, in anticipation of the arrival of the PMITM's, the main door to our department was closed off. It was festooned with a thick red carpet and gargantuan, expensive cones of flowers paid for by The People and intended to warn dumb eggs like me that Here There Be PMITMs. PMITM's love such things, but I tend not to pay enough attention to them. I just walked around to the other side of the building, uttering curses at the PMITM's.

I came in the back side, carrying my bike because I don't have a lock anymore. A Person Less Important Than Me cut halfway through it in the attempt to steal my bike during the winter holiday. In 39 years in America, no one EVER attempted to steal my bike, so I love when my Chinese students lecture me about the high crime rate in America.

When I reached the second floor, I found a huge gaggle of perhaps 20 Chinese boss-men, chatting with each other, all smoking cigarettes right in the middle of a no-smoking building. They were accompanied by a small band of beautiful college students dressed in long and body-hugging traditional-style cheongsam dresses. 

I recognized one of my former students, a girl called Jessie, who is legendarily tall, elegant, and beautiful. Whenever our university has dignitaries visiting, Jessie is guaranteed to be there, wearing the requisite cheongsam and wide, friendly smile. Someone in our administration hopes she will never graduate.

I was happy to see Jessie again, but I wasn't looking for friendly conversation. 

My parents instilled in me a lifelong contempt for cigarette smoke, to which was recently added a major dose of adult-onset asthma. I literally cannot safely be in a smoke-filled room anymore, or I could wind up in a hospital. So when I came to the second floor, intending to do my job, and met with a wall of cigarette smoke — in an area clearly marked NO SMOKING — I was miffed.

I asked Jessie if she could please inform these men that they aren't allowed to smoke in the hallways of our college, as is clearly marked on all the entrances. She didn't exactly say yes or no, she just… shrank. She tried hopelessly to avoid my eyes, but just before terror overtook her I felt a hand clap down on my shoulder.

This was Ming Zhao (name changed to protect the guilty) a nasty, smiling little ball of inhumanity who comes to my mid-chest in height, intellect, integrity, and all other manly qualities except for Communist Party influence. In that regard, he is a boss whom even our Chinese Dean has to fear.

Ming Zhao said, with a giant smile on his face, "It's nice to see you. Now please go out." He literally pushed me down the hall, through the pall of cigarette smoke, toward where I'd propped my bike against my office door. He didn't even make an attempt at respect or propriety, didn't give me a hint of dignity, just threw me away like the yangguizi I am. I coughed a bit, but kept my lungs mostly inside my chest as I sped down the hall like a cat flung out a window who tries to pretend "that's exactly what I wanted to do." 

Ming Zhao sent a student minion after me, ostensibly to inquire after my health, but mostly to make sure that I didn't return. The student, being young and therefore not too skilled in the art of being Chinese, didn't make a very good fake at caring whether my lungs were okay. He only managed to convey that My Presence Is Not Welcome among the PMITM's.

I found my student, cleared my lungs enough that I could talk, and then found a place near a window where I could breathe outside air. You can believe I was massively motivated to help her find an opportunity to go to America for graduate studies — or for anything else, for that matter. At that moment, I would have helped anyone escape this country.

This small incident was entirely my fault. Ming Zhao shouldn't have needed to remind me that in China, the leadership doesn't have to follow the rules that everyone else follows. It's only my foolishly reflexive American perspective that makes me expect consistency, integrity, and the rule of law. Such notions lead only to disaster here in the People's Republic of China.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

As it turns out, female bosses in China can suck, too, they just suck differently. And not all male bosses suck, either.

The district manager for Ma Lei's company is a man who sounds very professional. He's the one who, first week she was at work in the store, hinted to her that she's a future manager at a store with higher sales than this one, if she wants to be. The current store manager, though, is a female ben dan. "Ben dan" means literally "dumb egg," which is Chinese for dumb-ass. This particular ben dan has always been a manager, never actually worked the floor, yet she thinks she knows how to boss Ma Lei around — in short, her head is way up her eggs.

It's a long story not worth telling in detail, but yesterday the manager ordered three hefty boxes shipped, and when the delivery guy came he had Ma Lei pay him 12 yuan apiece (about $1.80). The manager-egg somehow had the idea that it was supposed to be 12 yuan for all three boxes — a preposterously low price — and she demanded that Ma Lei pay the extra $3.60. Ma Lei was incensed!

Now, I grant you that $3.60 is small change, arguably worth just sloughing off. But a) we're talking about a $225 a month job, so $3.60 isn't such small change, and much more importantly, b) this is Ma Lei, who will apologize to an ant for stepping on it inadvertently, but won't take shit for something she didn't do wrong.

This happened late in the day, just before Ma Lei was coming home. I'd been working all day, and my head was still in the computer when she came home at 6:00. I still hadn't prepared for today's class, nor had I broached my day's writing assignment, but I could see that she was in about as high a dudgeon as I've seen her in.

She kept apologizing to me for interrupting my work, but I wasn't the least bit upset. I told her I didn't fall in love with a noodle, nor did I want to. (That's the only way I knew how to explain it in Chinese.) She told me I was on my own for dinner, and then she disappeared into the bedroom to phone up her network of friends and coworkers she knew who had worked with courier companies in the past. 

She wanted moral support from her friends, but more than that she was checking the facts: was there any way the manager-egg had been right, all three boxes should have been shipped for $1.80? Of course they all said "no way." I could have told her that, but she wanted to be rock-solid certain rather than do anything rash. (I love this girl!)

After a little more than hour of combined venting and fact-checking, she hit the phone to call the district manager at 7:30 at night. She'd warned me about this, and she gave me an opportunity to dissuade her, but I didn't do it: she called him, with my full blessing. If I hadn't been raised with a mom who got work-related phone calls at hours well past 7:30 at night, I might have told her to wait till the next morning, but I was, and I didn't. I wanted that district manager to hear what Ma Lei had to say.

Her friend had told her not to speak to the district manager in a loud or harsh or proud voice, but Ma Lei told her friend "why should I be a noodle? He's not Mao Ze Deng, he's not Obama, why should I be afraid?" And indeed there was pride in her voice, though also respect.

Have I mentioned that I love this girl?

I think that what she told him is the most amazing part. I understood a good bit of it, then she gave me a simplified version afterward. After explaining the facts to him, she made it clear that her problem was not the money. It was very important to her that he think well of her, and if she walked away from her job over this $3.60, he not think that she had failed or done something wrong.

He asked if she wanted some sort of payment from him, and she said no, I don't want your money. He might have been a little perplexed by that, and he asked why she wanted the job at all, if she doesn't need money. She told him. "I don't want to be a lazy bug, staying home all day. I want something to do." If, however, the job conditions are such that she doesn't feel respected, she will "say gubai" — i.e., "goodbye."

She emerged from the bedroom proud, excited, confident, yet exhausted. She apologized for not having made me dinner, which (she said) is a wife's job. "I am a bad wife," she said. I couldn't disagree more.

About an hour later, Ma Lei's phone started registering calls from her ben-dan boss, every fifteen minutes or so. This was a mistake, on the boss's part, because Ma Lei was in no state of mind to speak with this woman, but the woman nevertheless tried for a couple of hours. Then she sent an apologetic text message saying "I misunderstood," and "you didn't understand me." Ma Lei saw it, but did not respond.

It was at once an act of cruelty and of charity for Ma Lei to ignore her boss's attempts to communicate. 

Of course, the manager-egg had heard from the district manager, and she must have been filled with fear and shame. 

If man is indeed a rational animal, and communication is best done in clear and reasoned tones — and if the store manager wished to hear anything that might soothe her abashment — last night was not the time for her to attempt to apologize to my dear, feisty wife. As Ma Lei herself said, you can push her around a lot, as long as it's reasonable, but once you've crossed a line her tongue is like a sword that will cut you in half. (That was her exact metaphor.)

I must confess that Ma Lei took some pleasure in her boss's apparent discomfiture. Whereas the first half of the night had been spent in anger, the second half was spent in slightly choumei gloating. Neither way was she going to sleep, and indeed she kept me up an hour after I needed to be asleep before my 12-hour Tuesday marathon, but I couldn't begrudge her a minute of her little triumph. Realizing that her desire to stay up was going to kill my workday, she took a Benadryl and collapsed.

Her job doesn't matter a jot, in the grand scheme of our lives. She could quit it, and we wouldn't notice the financial difference. But she wants to work, and I want a wife who wants to work. There's freedom in work, and there's pride, and there's independence. I don't want her to have to ask me for every penny — not because I can't afford it, but because I don't want her to have to ask it — and she doesn't want to have to ask.

She's off now, at work. I've not heard a thing from her about today's experience. The boss-egg-woman is seldom in the store, so it's likely that Ma Lei didn't see her all day. Nor did Ma Lei particularly want to talk to her. I think she just wants to continue doing her job and ignore that there was ever a conflict. And in the process, let the boss-egg-lady know who's really boss.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Glad I'm not a woman in China!

Ma Lei was in line for a really good job at a financial services company. She passed two tests, and was one of two people (out of more than 100) under consideration. The job didn't pay much to begin with, only about $225 a month, but there was a steep career curve available after the first two months.

Then she got a call: for only $7500, she could have the job. That is to say — if she gives the manager $7500, he'll choose her for the job. Apparently it's not that uncommon in China to demand about half a year's salary, up-front, as a bribe to get a good job. (I imagine Rod Blagojevich would be quite jealous.)

Then a day or two later, she was headed for another job interview. She climbed on to a hyper-crowded bus, squished in front of a late-50s man. After a while, she started to feel a little "stirring" behind her at waist level. She moved out of the way, but the man followed to press his "stirring" into her again. She moved again, and again he followed her. Finally, she shouted to the bus driver to stop, saying in full voice exactly why. The old dirty old man turned red and fled the bus.

Her job interview went a lot better than the ride to get there. She was hired immediately, without having to go through the usual multiple layers of interviews. Ma Lei's friend who works at the company told her that rarely happens, so the manager who interviewed her must have been quite impressed with her.

First day of work, Ma Lei's new boss said he would like to take her out for lunch. Great. At lunch, after a little talk about the job, the people in the office, etc., he leaned forward told her she's very beautiful. Next, he asked her to go to a hotel with him. Now she's looking for Job #3. 

First boss asked for money, second boss asked for sex. What's left for the third one to ask for? First-born child?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Two Chinas, Two Americas

Our landlady called Ma Lei last night to ask if we could possibly do her a big favor and pay our next three months' rent (about $1500) a few weeks early. As it happens, I had the money available to me, so I was able to hand it over now instead of at the end of the month.

She stated the reason for needing the money early as: her son is going to study overseas, and she has to make some sort of payment post-haste. That seemed a little odd, because she surely would've known the deadlines in advance and, as a Chinese parent hyper-concerned about her child's education, saved for it assiduously. I kind of figured she was fibbing, but I didn't expect ever to find out the real truth.

To my surprise, after Ma Lei had given the landlady my money, the woman decided to tell her the real story. It's anybody's guess why the landlady felt like telling her, or what subtext she intended to convey to my wife about the evils and treachery of America.

The landlady's brother went three years ago, without a visa, to live in the States, Los Angeles, as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. A couple of days ago, the brother was killed in a robbery. The brother is in the States illegally, so the government won't do a thing about his body. Apparently it's the family's responsibility back here to foot the bill to ship him home for proper cremation. That's why she experienced the sudden need for my cash.

 At the exact same time as this conversation was taking place, I was working with a lovely young student whose family has been paying me to tutor her in preparation for prep school in the States. She's a bright and bubbly eighth-grader, currently being homeschooled for the rest of this academic year. She's been accepted by a number of top-end prep schools, including one in the Chicago-area oligoburb Lake Forest.

 Yesterday, she showed me with great delight the pink, shoulder-less dress her mother bought her for some imagined high school ball, a topic to which she makes an animated return almost every day in class. "Who will invite me? What if I'm not pretty enough to be invited? Will there be dance lessons before the ball? I don't know how to dance." It's as though, freed from the dreaded Chinese gaokao exam, she's now replaced it in her mind with the exalted prom.

 As I learned today, she's already been to America for a two-week summer camp at — of all places — Citrus College, where my ex-girlfriend used to work. In the mornings she attended classes at the Junior College; in the afternoons, she was shuttled to places like Disneyland and Malibu Beach. At night, she stayed with a local family. Her aunt lives with a green card in California somewhere, married to a Chinese guy she met at a fancy party in the States. They have a very cute young son.

 Here you have the two Americas, in stark contrast, presented to my eyes in a single day. One is built of illegal immigration, low-wage jobs, and senseless deadly crimes. In the other, green cards come up in the spring like daffodils, "It's a Small World, After All," and the biggest cause for stress is whether or not a handsome Lake Forestran prince will ask the exuberant Chinese princess to the formal ball.

 We hear much about the two Chinas, the one occupied by the astronomically rich and the other occupied by everybody else, but we don't hear very much about the two very different Americas seen by these two classes of Chinese.