Teaching


We are no longer able to see our breath indoors; life here is starting to improve. Thailand now seems like a place which exists in another dimension. We joke about this great dream we had, where we were warm and people were happy. We’re back in China, where the air looks like skim milk and people’s moods are rather dour.

I’m entering my fifth week of teaching college English. I have 120 students broken up into 3 classes of roughly 40 each. I do short presentations, then have the students work in pairs and small groups. My classes have a kind of workshop feel, with students speaking to each other, and me circulating, answering questions, and helping them out. Coming here I didn’t expect to be a college teacher, but I am and I’m really enjoying it. The students are very appreciative and seem to be learning and enjoying themselves.

Of course I can’t really talk to my students about what I want to. In China, we’re told about The Three Ts that can’t be discussed: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tian’enmen. I do talk to them about global warming and climate change. The environment seems ok to address, so far. Even the Communist Party bosses give it lip service. But I wonder if I would get in trouble if I told my students that four million Chinese die every year from urban air pollution. What would happen if I started pointing to the dark side of the Chinese “economic miracle,” to the massive displacement of people from the countryside, forced into the cities to work in factories? What if we discussed the inherent contradiction between ecological health and capitalist growth? Would that get me in trouble, in this ostensibly Communist country?

While so far I’ve been able to talk superficially about global warming, I can’t openly challenge the official version of what’s going on in Tibet right now. At first the Chinese media said nothing about the protests. We heard about them early in the week from someone in the States. Even then, a search on the Web only turned up a short report on the Washington Post site, under Religion. By Friday, when Chinese police attacked a peaceful march by Tibetan monks, and outraged Tibetan civilians reacted forcefully, the Chinese media could no longer ignore what was happening. Getting their information from Chinese TV news and newspapers, my students would be under the impression that the Dalai Lama was orchestrating “sabotage” from Dharamsala, India, and that “criminals” were killing Chinese shop owners and disturbing the “social harmony” which the Chinese government cherishes so much, especially in the run up to the August Olympics. The Tibetans are depicted here as hooligans, trouble-makers, and “splitters.”

If this weren’t China, I’d tell my students to seek out the Tibetan students on campus and talk to them about their perspectives on what’s going on, that they should ask the Tibetans what they’ve heard is happening from their relatives back home. I would encourage them to seek out information from varying sources and make up their own minds about the issue. I’d teach them about State propaganda and the way the media is used to manipulate populations, and how to deconstruct media sources and assertions.

I would ask them if they knew it is illegal to display the Tibetan flag in Tibet. And that it is illegal to display a picture of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Or that according to multiple sources in Tibet, at least 80 people have been killed, some shot down by Chinese police in the streets.

If this weren’t China, I’d expect the Tibetan Student Association to be holding forums on the situation, with updates from friends and family in Lhasa, or Xiahe in Gansu Province. I would expect a rally on campus protesting the crackdown. But, this is China. The Tibetan students on campus are being fairly closely monitored, in all likelihood. In a place like this, you think twice before you even approach a Tibetan student to talk. Who’s watching? This, of course, is the strength of a police state. One starts to police oneself out of fear.

Despite all these constraints, exacerbated and brought more into relief under these conditions, it’s interesting to spend time with these Chinese young people. Although college freshmen, they look and act more like high schoolers. Because of Yao Ming they are all Houston Rocket fans, and all the boys like basketball and the NBA, which is better than their misguided belief that ping pong is a sport, the national sport in fact. They are interested in politics, but also in Madonna.

In a discussion of film, I taught them the word “genre,” and gave them a sheet with my top five picks in eight film categories. They all love Titanic and Forrest Gump, so I felt compelled to clue them in to some more interesting films. In a discussion of responses to show interest and start a conversation, I taught them the words “bummer” and “excellent,” and the phrase “That’s cool.” Three of my students are sitting in because they’ll be going to the U.S. to study in the Fall. At the very least, I hope that I can provide them with some basic preparation to make the most of their experience there.

Although I’m not doing what I wish I could be doing with my classes, it is interesting to teach. It’s a good experience to get in front of groups of people to talk every week, and this is opening up my mind to different things I can do when we return to the US, in terms of teaching, public speaking, and political organizing. A big part of those kinds of activities involves feeling at ease talking in front of people you don’t know. That’s what I’m getting from my experience. And who knows, maybe some students may want to talk about Tibet, global warming and the negative impact of capitalist development, or alternative news sources, after class. Even then though, should I speak my mind?

Yesterday I received a phone call from Mr. Yang, head of the Office of International Education, which happens to occupy the second floor of our apartment building.  He’s Lara’s Foreign Affairs Officer, and our primary institutional contact at the University.  He said he wanted to see me in his office right away.  I didn’t know what this was about, but in the back of my head I thought ok, someone in the government has taken exception to something I wrote and now I’m going to hear about it.  This is a background preoccupation of mine here, not knowing the degree of surveillance and thus always wondering what exactly is going on. I never quite know where the lines are, what’s tolerated, what’s not, and if they even care all that much. I went downstairs ready for anything.

Mr. Yang is a well-meaning bureaucrat, who speaks in halting English, considering every word before he says anything.  He does translation work in addition to heading up the office which overseas the foreign teachers.   From time to time I help him with this.  He’ll call me into his office, sounding all official and serious, then show me something on his computer about “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or proper procedures for washing gem stones, wondering how best to translate the Chinese into English.

After helping him with an awkward phrase on the document on his computer, he told me the reason he had summoned me.  It turns out an American English teacher who we know had to go back suddenly to the United States because his father is ill.  He teaches seven English classes to graduate students.  I looked at him, knowing where this was going.

He told me there are three two hour classes on Monday, two on Tuesday, and two on Wednesday.  It’s a group of 150 students, from several different colleges, all taking English because it’s required, and none of them are English majors. They need a teacher for the rest of the term.  He said he thought I could do it.

I said, You know, I’m not a teacher, I have no experience teaching.  You asked me to teach three classes starting in February and I am planning on doing that. This gives me two months to learn as much as possible how to teach English from Lara and plan my classes.  Mr. Yang now wanted me to start not next February, but next week, first thing Monday morning.  I told him I’d think about it and tell him the next day.

We met some of the students this morning, and they are very friendly and made me feel at ease.  It seems like it would be a fun experience to work with them, plus it’ll be a kind of trial run for my classes in February.  They are very eager to learn and seemed so happy to met me.  How could I say no?

It turns out the class only has three weeks to go, so I’ll be done before New Years. This will be an interesting way to interact with a large group of grad students, learning more about China in the process.  So no interrogations about my blog or anything else.  Just a request for help, and an opportunity to immerse myself deeper into China.