During my early days in China I had a class of young engineering teachers who spoke good English and were consequently being retrained as English teachers. They were displeased at being reassigned arbitrarily and bold in their nonverbal language. For example, free tickets to the American movie Love Story were being given out. One day one of the young teachers offered me his ticket and the class seemed pleased with my acceptance. Another offered to sit by me at the movie. I just thought he was being gracious. Ha!
The 2000-seat auditorium was filled and people were packed around the perimeter of the huge room. On my left was the young man who had accompanied me and on my right was an engineering teacher who was a student in one of my other classes. A number of men were standing on the stage giving speeches. Hadn’t I come to see a movie? I was disappointed, thinking I had misunderstood the invitation. My escort began to interpret the speeches but the teacher on the right leaned over me to protest rather vociferously. Soon a heated quarrel ensued: it wasn’t proper that I should know the slogans and admonitions being preached by the Communist officials. I scooted down in my seat to be inconspicuous as possible.
People were talking to each other at the top of their lungs so although the public address system was turned to the threshold of squealing, the speakers could barely be heard.
“Is this Chinese courtesy”? I asked my student.
“Yes, it is common because people hate these weekly meetings and consider them a waste of time. But we are required to attend, so we either talk or study to make use of the time.” After tolerating two hours of speechifying we were allowed to see the movie which was cut and patched to satisfy Chinese morality.
In order to understand this incident one needs to know that just as western civilization is founded on a Christian worldview, Chinese civilization is based on a political worldview. Possibly I was given the free ticket because my young adult students wanted me to know that everything written or spoken is interpreted politically. In one case I knew of a foreigner who had a 10,000 page dossier collected on him. Surveillance is a given. Some universities give their foreign teachers a computer with Internet hookup so that their vigilance can be maintained a bit easier. Telephones are closely monitored as well, and all mail is read before being delivered to the addressee. I once received a book three months after it was airmailed to me. Do you suppose it took the censor that long to read it first?
A Real Love Story
In one of my oral English classes for teachers there was a young Communist Party member I shall call Paul. In another class for second year English majors was a very pretty young lady I shall call Bea. Over the school year they fell in love. The match wasn’t good though, because of age and social differences. Although Bea was quite sophisticated she was from the countryside. Paul was not so refined but he was politically ambitious. He came to visit me one day to tell me his quandary. If he married Bea, she wanted him to return to her village with her or there would be no marriage. His dream was to become important and rich. Could his dream and this romance be brought together? I suggested that he could become a big duck in a little puddle and after further deliberation, this is what he decided to do – marry the girl and go to her village to help the people develop their economy.
Several years later they invited me to their village. It was a closed area where the people were so extremely poor that possibly the provincial officials were too embarrassed to allow visitors. Paul had connections so I could enter and was made welcome. Bea had become a teacher of English in a technical school and was chosen as a model teacher in the area. She was pressured to join the Communist Party and steadfastly refused. When the authorities appealed to Paul to coerce her, he refused to pressure Bea, explaining that she was able to make her own decisions. I really admired their respect for one another in a country where this is not the norm. The last I heard, this very backward area had risen in economic development and is now open to travelers, at least partially thanks to Paul and Bea.
Since Chinese families may have only one child they often abort or abandon girl babies and choose boys. The result is boys who are self-centered and the masters of their families. These attitudes carry over into the classroom and I had several opportunities to deal with their arrogance. Corey was a nontraditional male student who sat in my class as an auditor. We became friends and continued to maintain contact for several years. His family made me welcome in their home several times and Corey and I enjoyed walking about the nearby mountains. Eventually he found an excellent job as an interpreter/ translator for a small international company in his area and married. I went to see him and his family one last time before leaving that area and was impressed with the number of square feet in his large apartment since square footage indicates importance.
While I was teaching in Beijing he came to the city on business and gave me a call. We set up an appointment but that morning it was pouring down rain so I didn’t go to the bus stop to meet him. I thought he would surely call to cancel since I didn’t have his hotel phone number. A couple of days later he called and his voice was trembling so I asked if something was wrong. He said he was so angry with me for not meeting him in the downpour that he was controlling his feelings with great difficulty. I explained that he had neglected to give me his hotel phone number so I couldn’t call to cancel the appointment and apologized for not meeting him. He said that his rage had been a problem since he was a child when he didn’t get his own way. That was the last I heard from Cory.
In two other cases, male students didn’t attend their writing classes. Both were very intelligent and had affluent parents, so they mistakenly thought their university teachers would understand when more important things prevented them from coming to classes. Writing in a foreign language is a skill learned through practice, thus both these young men failed writing. The university chose to support their foreign teacher’s assessment, so the young men were expected to repeat the class with students a year younger. This was certainly a blow to the male ego, so I offered to tutor them separately in the privacy of my apartment. They were grateful and accomplished the lessons faithfully and easily.
One young man stood out as a social misfit in a culture which emphasizes relationships. I made a special effort to get to know him and discovered that he had never known his father and was raised by his mother and grandmother. He had taken the university entrance exam to go into some field of science but was arbitrarily placed in English language. There are few counselors in the Chinese education system and psychology is regarded with deep suspicion, so I tried unsuccessfully to find a male teacher or graduate student to befriend this young man. As a last resort I asked an American man to try to win his confidence, but this didn’t work out either. Finally, I simply did the best I could to be his friend and sounding board. After graduation he got a job translating scientific materials into English and began taking night classes to reach his personal goals.
Democracy at Work
Writing in a foreign language requires time for thinking about how to express thoughts rationally. One day the students were slow in completing their writing assignment so I allowed them to remain in the room to finish and left the monitor in charge. For some reason the monitor also left. When I came back in the afternoon to collect the completed assignments not all the students’ papers were accounted for. Apparently three “bad boys” from the class had snatched a handful of papers and threw them away. Since I hated to ask everyone to make up the assignment they had worked so hard on, I submitted the problem to the whole class.
First I asked the three boys to stand and apologize to their classmates. They stood and started self-criticisms! Quickly I stopped them, explaining that self-criticism was far too severe for a relatively minor mistake in judgment. Everyone looked surprised. I asked the boys to sit down and talked a bit more about the value and dignity of a person because we are made in God’s image. Even a hardened criminal has value in God’s eyes. I could see that they didn’t fully understand but they were open to my comments, having heard that Americans believed in democracy. We solved the problem of the missing papers as a class and the “bad boys” never caused trouble again, having been allowed to explain themselves, apologize, and help solve the problem of missing assignments in a respectful manner.