Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Sociologist's Observations on Teaching in China*

 *A highly edited version of this piece appeared in Change (2013 Jan/Feb edition)

In northwest China, at the very edge of a 30,000 student campus and next to a busy road, the warm dry winds from the mountains to the west are blowing onto the desert plain that is my summer home. This is my seventh trip to China, but first as a visiting professor of sociology at a Chinese university.
What one finds here at the edge of globalization, if they put down their books and turn off their tv’s and “just go out and look” as David Riesman was fond of advising his students, is that the strong cultural and historical forces that rocketed China into the globalized world and brought an influx of Western culture, are countered by equally strong cultural and historical forces that root the Chinese students in a traditional and hesitant stance toward these changes.  And so within the students and within the space they inhabit, the modern, the post-modern and the traditional co-exist. It is a pastiche that makes China as fascinating as it is confusing.
                  In some ways, life at this Chinese University, situated on the western edge of a million plus person city, is a walled-in oasis providing calm amidst the fast-pasted chaos just outside its gates. More than just a calm, however, it seems to be a stronghold of older, more traditional Chinese sentiments anchored by filial piety and respect for elders, even if not of your same family. Classroom monitors, usually the student or students deemed the most promising, attentively watch the professor for any needs that may arise during lecture. The professor writes on the board, the classroom monitor dutifully erases throughout the lecture, sometimes appearing with a wet towel if the board has become too dusty. As the lecture nears its mid-point, and the professor pauses to sip on a cup of hot water, random students attentively appear at the front of the room to replenish the cup with freshly boiled water. Computer monitors, projectors, computers, everything is set-up by the students prior to the professor’s arrival to the room. The job of the professor is to teach. Everything in support of that is dutifully carried out by the students as a show of respect for the learned elder they are studying under. Offices are cleaned, plants are watered, doors are opened, conference travel arrangements for the professor are booked and copies are made and distributed- all by students.
The existential concerns for both my American and Chinese students- as is likely the case for most students at the edge of adulthood- are the same; worries over job prospects upon graduation, the angst that comes from negotiating first loves, and the universal Freudian battle they suffer as they attempt to balance the hopes, desires and dreams of their parents against their own. Though in China, still in a state of what Wei Fui has called “incomplete modernity,” this struggle is more pronounced; another dichotomy with students caught in a psychologically precarious culture that still demands traditional filial piety while simultaneously selling the modern and post-modern sexual and materialistic promises of a narcissistic consumer culture. The students speak with excitement of the homes that are now in reach for their generation, of the cars and all the material abundance that just a generation before was reserved for the ruling elite. But they are also uneasy with these dreams.
This generation has witnessed cataclysmic change transforming at an indescribable speed and scope the social landscape. Of all the negative press China receives, what is not often reported, is that China has managed to create in less than a generation, what is soon to be, if it is not already, the world’s largest middle class, and they started with essentially no middle class.  My students sense this. The majority of students that I have engaged in conversation with come from small rural villages where their parents still work as farmers. The bustling consumerism and city-life outside the campus gates, literally a world away from the isolated, small and indescribably poor rural areas that they come from, is soon to be there’s. But for the time being, like much of China, they are caught between this change, stuck between two worlds.
Without exception, all have expressed wishes to stay in the city, and most have dreams of moving to even bigger, and more famous Chinese cities where jobs and money seem even more plentiful. A handful want to venture outside of China, to the US or Europe. Yet, most also express a contradictory desire and wish to live with their families to help support and show devotion to their parents. As one student told me, “We don’t say ‘I love you’ often to our parents. If you love them, you will return to help them as they get old. It is what you do that matters, not what you say.” The students are living testaments to what Arthur Kleinman, an anthropologist, psychiatrist and one of the most adept observers of the Chinese and their culture, called, a “divided (Chinese) self.” Even in my students’ hopes and dreams it seems, worlds collide.
And so on one level, they appear strikingly similar in their psychological struggles to American students. But on another level, the level of the communal soul still present within these students, the struggle is agonizingly more pronounced. The contradictions, complexities and multitudes of these unbridgeable differences and deep sameness were never made more so apparent than when I connected my Chinese students with my American students “face-to-face” via Skype.


With a 12-hour time difference between us, arrangements were made to have my US class meet at 8a East Coast time, while it was 8p Beijing time. The American class of 25 students gathered in their modern, air-conditioned, stadium-style classroom. The projector screen, electronically controlled, with build-in speakers throughout the room, broadcast in life-size images the scene from my side of the world. Gathered in my small Chinese apartment, were eight Chinese students huddled around a small 13-inch laptop. The dimly lit room was crowded and hot, as a dust storm blowing outside forced the windows closed, cutting off the only means of ventilation.
My Chinese students’ English is proficient though difficult to understand until you become accustomed to the strong accent. My Chinese is bu tai hao (not good), and my American students no know Chinese. So arrangements had been made for a translator on the American side if needed. At first, though there was no need. There was only silence. The Chinese students stared at what they later described as amazement at the modern, movie-like theater that was the American classroom. On the American side, some students stared back, but many only stared at their own personal screens broadcasting competing images from some other distant place.
As a culture, being much more direct, the first question from an American student was political: “Does your government’s internet censorship bother you?” The response from the Chinese students was expected- an automatic, ideological and programmed reply: “Some restrictions are necessary in order to maintain a harmonious and peaceful society. But the smart ones who really want to know something, will find a way around.” A series of similar questions from the American side followed, with programmed, script-like, politically-correct responses from the Chinese side. An American student: “What do you think of not having a democracy?” The Chinese reply: “China is a democracy and at the local level we have elections, but it takes time to create a new way of governing, and for harmony and stability, it is best that this is a slow change.”
Once the topics turned to the students’ daily lives, the tone changed. The predictable, robot-like responses ceased. Smiles formed as empathy was broadcast with the realization that in their free time, the students were much the same. Students found common ground in the music they listened too, in the movies they watched and in the misery that comes from the pressures of standardized tests and demanding parents. During the 75 minute session, the students both in America and China danced Salsa-style for each other (though none of them were from Latin-America), demonstrated their singing ability with songs that both groups knew the words too, discussed their favorite alcoholic drinks and discussed their desires for the same Western luxury cars they hoped to buy when they landed their first jobs. Though of my eight Chinese students that were present that night, only three had parents that owned cars.
As the session drew to an end, the Chinese, being both indirect and hesitant to get into political matters for a long array of historical reasons, finally felt comfortable enough to ask what they really wanted to know of Americans: “Why do you love violence?”
While up to this point I had purposely stayed in the background, not wanting to interfere with deep and meaningful exchange that had unexpectedly and spontaneously sprung up between the two groups, I felt a need for my Chinese students to expound and clarify what they meant. The Chinese students clarified with the following evidence: “Most of your movies that we see are about war or violence.” “You feel strongly that your citizens should own guns.” “You have one of the highest murder rates of advanced societies.” And finally, the most damning indictment, “In our lifetime, you have been at war for more years than you have been at peace.”
The American students’ response: “We carry guns because we value freedom.” “We have a high murder rate because of our free and uncensored media and video games that our children watch” “We don’t fight wars because we love violence; we fight for peace and freedom.”
 The American students, like the Chinese before them, when confronted with a tough and challenging truth, responded with an automatic, ideological and programmed reply. The Chinese students were as confused and befuddled by the illogical and programmed responses, as the American students were confused and befuddled before them at the equally illogical and programmed reply from the Chinese.

But in the students’ dancing, the singing, the shared consumeristic dreams, but mostly in the confusion, as a sociologist, I saw a deep and telling sameness.

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