Sweet and Bitter

Outside Beijing, it’s suddenly rural Hebei province. Where my generous, beautiful student hosted us in her village. We walked through the sweet potato fields (also some peanuts and corn). Ethan loved pumping water and bringing it inside. Fun, she said–the first time. Small farming terraces, impossible for machines to navigate, greatly increase farming’s hardship. An amazing cook, her mom has farmed for more than 30 years.

From the sweet potato, mom made fantastic silky cellophane noodles (lunch, with greenbeans; dinner, cold with cucumbers and vinegar). With dishes of fish, pork in black bean sauce, roast duck, other vegetables, and the holiday special rice dumplings filled with date, sweet potato was also served in sugared cubes that harden like candyapple when dipped into cold water at the table. What a feast at this farm on Dragon Boat Festival.

Later, since a mom is never allowed to rest, and since she hadn’t already cooked a feast, the children demanded a lesson in making dumplings. It begins with fresh greens.

We talked about how poorly equipped and staffed rural schools are, and the far higher college-entrance exam scores rural kids need to get into college. Suddenly I understood: this discriminatory policy is to reproduce more farmers. By capping their opportunities, food will be grown. China won’t starve.

The poster says, “Men! The One-Child Policy is your responsibility.”

The noodles, made by a neighbor in the village from sweet potato flour.

More Great Student Journalism

Writers Workshop, my apt

If you’re unmarried at 27, you’re a “leftover lady” – Reese explores this ridiculous problem in the third and last batch of student final pieces, (the first batch here) presented aloud at my apt, over lunch. For a look at some parents’ alarmed, creative reaction to their kids potentially being leftover, we travel with Jolie (and in a related piece, Natalie) to Matchmaker’s Park, a well-done tale (she’s even recruited as good bride material). THose poor, anxious parents stand for hours with placards advertising their children to other anxious parents.

Jolie

Natalie

Lucia told the story of an NGO founded by China’s  leading, pioneering investigative journalist Wang Keqing, who sometimes teaches in this department, to help miners and other impoverished Chinese industrial workers with black lung disease. Some on staff were initially persecuted, for embarrassing the government. The NGO is one of few–it’s a new and uncertain area of China’s nascent, still-beleaguered civil society. Happily, it recently got on the government’s good side, and a few celebrities have lined up for a big fundraiser this month.

Aileen takes us on a journey through her feelings of patriotism and yet demand for information about her home that she loves,  China, on a trip into the troubled Tibetan area, Qinghai. She seeks to explore the unrest (while translating for a journalist from India), and must grapple with being accused by security forces, at every step, of being a traitor.

Aileen journeyed to Tibetan Qinghai

Susan looks at Confucius Institutes (from her days earlier this year interning in NYC), particularly the one at Pace University, and realizes the U.S. students there are learning more about Peking Opera, silk, calligraphy and classical poetry than she knows, as a devoted English student. She determines, then, to rediscover her own culture.

Susan

Laura shows us why Christianity, despite the hype and worry, won’t catch on in China. We see her quit, after too much uncomfortable touchie-feelie hugging and what feels like too much fake saying “I love you.”

Cynthia shows us a migrant laborer who founded a hotline to help others, a well-drawn bio piece about a modern-day hero.

Susan Yu takes us inside student union election politics – a microcosm for Party politics, and urges change towards a more truly democratic process.

In a

Susan Yu

nother great piece, we see how Chinese senior citizens, displaced from the center and their old communities by Beijing’s rampant, outward, horizontal growth pattern, are now being accused of clogging up mass transit when they travel back to their favorite old spots at rush hour.

Cynthia

And Guanlin tells the story of life as a Beijing public toilet cleaner who actually lives inside a stall, with his wife and grandchild.

Liya wrote about Beijing’s oldest foreign-owned small business, run by China’s original British hipster.

Stimulating Discussion With Chinese Students

The campus cats. Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Some of these tips I got on arrival, from Fulbright meetings. Other later in my time here. A lot didn’t work. Below is what did. The custom is, teacher’s right/students listen & regurgitate later. Much has been written about how frustrating this is to American lecturers, here and at U.S. colleges (where, sometimes, language proficiency or fraudulent applications may be at fault). There are solutions.

Distribute questions a week in advance to a group. The group prepares the answers. The “discussion” (group presentation) occurs at a planned time.

This didn’t suit a reporting & writing course. They reported and wrote almost every week. Instead, I gave a quiz on the rare non-reporting, non-writing weeks, to ensure they used that week to get caught up with the past month or so’s reading. After the quiz was a reasonably good time for discussion; everyone was ‘on the same page.’

Explain that they need the skill of being able to discuss material, to be transnational. Explain that it’s required in the U.S. classroom, from middle school onward. Lay out the expectation the first day that every student is expected to speak in class, and that to challenge the teacher is considered polite. That questions don’t imply I haven’t done a thorough teaching job.

Unless the students had done a semester abroad, or was naturally extroverted, this had no impact. By the end, I’ve imparted a living sense of a different student-teacher relationship–more actively engaged (if not quite Socratic), more ‘democratic’ and hands-on and debate-oriented. But it’s a slow build, not something you can create in a day.

Call on students randomly.

This worked poorly.

–Go around the room, one by one.

This also worked poorly. Many students were unprepared, unwilling, too nervous, got stage fright & lost their fluent English.

Ask a question. Break up into pairs for discussion. Let one of the pair represent their thoughts aloud.

This might work. I broke into groups of 4 or 5. Sometimes we had a good exercise. The problems were 1) I gave too much time to prepare; 5 minutes would be good but I probably gave 10+, so it devolved into a chat-fest. And 2) the same old gregarious, extroverted, most-fluent students would be speaking, as always.

Here is what worked for me:

Explain the purpose of student-teacher individual conferences, and then pass out a weekly sign-up list. I made coming in mandatory, at least once. Many students came a lot. I had 4 hours/week set aside for conferences (most weeks), at my kitchen table. Discussing, tutoring, mentoring, relationship-building all much easier in this informal setting.

Class lunches. This was strongly recommended by Fulbright, as a key part of our We’re-Not-Your-Typical-Foreign-Expert approach. Great tradition. Class leader would reserve one big table (7-9 students), almost every week. Rotated around until everyone (nearly 90 students this year) participated. They ordered so I learned about a lot of good foods, too. Guest speakers sometimes joined, or other faculty, which was extra great.  Informal setting meant no one was on stage so there wasn’t stage fright or the other problems. Only downside was, had to regularly remind everyone to use English, so we could get to know one another better.

–Distribute a ‘self-evaluation sheet’ the day a piece is due, and discuss after they’ve filled it out. Got this idea from a Chinese professor. Students use this ‘quiz’ to evaluate their work (which they have in hand, in hard copy), against the techniques/skills/theories contained in the latest readings. After they’re done, it’s all fresh in mind, they’ve had a critical, analytical half hour with the material, they’re called on to share aloud the result of their self-evaluation.

BFSU Main Building spring 2012

Readings…

My students complain that post-graduate education isn’t strong in China and want to go overseas. In rural areas, the elementary level is much worse…

China’s overvalued currency has inflated a real-estate asset bubble. Lending to developers has been riskiest (not surprisingly) by the least-regulated nonbank lenders who offer the highest returns. How it may blow up…(Thanks for this, Annie Levy) By a smart prof at Tsinghua with whom I sat on a China Radio International panel on the 9/11 anniversary…

Brookings’ 5-part series on many facets of the 2012 Party Congress, at which like 3/4 of China’s leadership will turn over. The rising leaders are from the “lost generation,” those sent to labor in the countryside instead of to school during the Cultural Revolution, and bring an unprecedented diversity of experiences. And because once they finally got to study they really dug in, they bring comparatively very high levels of education (PhDs) in diverse fields. The technocratic engineers in charge today, their time is over….Many thanks for this to Harry Williams of Carleton College, my Fulbright colleague now up north.

My Students, in Their Own Words

Beijing Foreign Studies University


“I have often thought about what makes me different from the millions of the others who also got the same name. I believe, it is those people who raised me. My family is not a well-off one. But through my parents’ love and care I learnt about faith and trust. Through their examples of reading at night I learnt about the power of knowledge. Through their everyday housekeeping, through every meal, every outing, every call, I learnt responsibility and happiness and love. And my grandma, who regards me coming first in everything I do, never have doubt on my capabilities, she is my inspiration…I am glad to be myself. I am the Yang Yang who is like no one else.”

***

“For me, English is the best friend and teacher I ever had. It showed me how beautiful a language could possibly be, and it changed my perspective of certain issues like democracy.”

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“I have experienced the atmosphere of overcoming difficulty after difficulty. Thousands of tests have effectively shaped me in calmly tackling barriers.”

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“I come from a very traditional Chinese family with no siblings. To some extent, it results in the loneliness and independence of my personality. And I am somewhat grateful for the small size of my family because I can receive all my parents’ attention.”

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“My choice of journalism major was not something random. I’d get moved by stories told by journalists and journalists themselves who fought for causes as human rights, peace and democracy. I can feel the language and I feel its power. It is my will to wield it as sheild and sword to preserve the many things worth fighting for.”

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“Though I love it, I have never made up my mind to be a journalist, part of the reason for which is the objection from my parents. They don’t want me to be in danger but unfortunately, journalist is never safe.”

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“Unlike most children around me, I was brought up by my grandparents. My parents have been away from home to make a living. They came back home twice a year, leaving my brother and me growing up independently. I always hoped summer and winter vacation could come soon, because only then could I get a chance to see my parents. Because of this unforgettable experience, I have been dreaming of becoming a teacher. I hope to get an average income from this stable job and use it to support my family. I dream that one day my parents no longer need to struggle alone.”

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“I hope to be an international NGO worker, a member of the institutions under UN, to be someone speaking for our people, fighting for the promising future of the entire human beings.”

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“I hope that I can be more critical and analytical every time I read some materials especially news reports and articles about current affairs. I hope to sharpen my thoughts so that I can see the essence of the events better.”

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“I was raised under the influence of Chinese Confucianism and hold the faith in the ideal of ‘cultivating yourself, managing your family, governing the country and chase global peace’ proposed by Confucius thousands years ago. Thus I do not desire a life simply driven by money or fame but one with inner peace.”

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“My ultimate goal is to do something good for the whole society. I can be a politician or a diplomat, or a employee in cross-continent corporations, or even a part-time writer. No matter what job I do, I will always remember to make this world better.”

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“It is very hard for Chinese to make our voice heard. That is a big problem. And I want to be one of the journalists to introduce the wrold to China, as well as introduce China to the world.”