Praise for a Five-Child Policy

A former student in Beijing has four siblings — a rarity for ’80s kids in China. Below is a bit out of an essay, a love paean to her older sister on the occasion of her sister’s wedding. I love my siblings and watching my two kids grow up together. I was moved a few years ago by this exhibition of photographs at Three Shadows, commenting on the One Child Policy — bleached, hyper real double-exposures pairing only children with themselves.

1 child policy exhibit

Loneliness is the message of Fan Shisan’s “2 of Us,” a take on China’s 30-year-old One Child policy. The generation of 100 million only-children is “tragic,” Fan writes in exhibition notes. “The loneliest generation in history. Besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries, the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China – though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” Only children “won’t know what they’ve lost.”

My writer, Lijun (Julia) reached out to me for a grad school rec this month. So she and her writing on her siblings, a topic she returned to in several assignments, are on my mind.

“I gave my brother-in-law a big smile and thanked him for the willingness to shelter my boring leftover sister.

What will I bring to my sister’s wedding, what can I say? I think I will bring nothing but one of my favourite poems, if she will forgive me for not bringing any gift.

I Carry Your Heart With Me  by E. E. Cummings
I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart) I am never without it
(anywhere I go you go, my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
I fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)
I want no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide) “
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)

And I hope from that wedding day, the man I barely know and never see will carry her heart just as well.”

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Cow Pussy, & Other Mandarin Mysteries

Fabulously, Evaline Chao (byline: “a freelance writer based in New York City”) yesterday wrote a great piece of cultural translation — a philological analysis where we learn the layers of meaning embedded in new words in Chinese — for Foreign Policy:From House Slaves to Banana People – Seven new words that explain modern China.

Evaline Chao is author of Niubi: The real chinese you were never taught in school, which I’m going to buy for my son. (Philology is on my mind partly after seeing  the Israeli drama, “Footnote” (2011 foreign Oscar nominee) or הערת שוליים‎, He’arat Shulayim, which is all about how powerful it becomes to delve into a word’s meaning.) Chao’s book, the opening pages of which are readable online !,   precisely unpack, I’m delighted to say, TWO of our big life-in-China mysteries.
(1)  soccer vulgarity, which we pondered in “Dirty Words Football,” featuring tiny tots screaming “Vagina”
and
(2) repulsively inflated sheep carcasses — which we blogged about after almost vomiting at them in Lanzhou, at the edge of the Gobi. Evaline enlightens on page one:

“Cow Pussy, Yes, Cow Pussy

Let’s begin with…cow pussy. Or rather niubi (nyoo bee), which literally translates to “cow pussy” but means “fuckin’ awesome” or “badass” or “really fuckin’ cool.” Sometimes I means something more like “big” and “powerful,” and sometimes it can have the slightly more negative meaning of “bragging” or “braggart” or “being audacious,” but most of the time it means “fuckin’ awesome.”

The etymology of niubi is unknown…Some say the idea is that a cow’s pussy is really big, so things that are similarly impressive are called cow cunts. Others say that it stems from the expression chui niupi (chway nyoo pee), which literally translates to “blow up ox hide” and also connotes bragging or a braggard (someone who can blow a lot of hot air). In fact, the word for bragging is the first part of that phrase, chuiniu (chway nyoo). Once upon a time (an dyou can still see this done today in countries like Pakistan) — NOTE: ALSO IN NORTHWEST CHINA ON YELLOW RIVER– people made rafts out of animal hides that had to be blown up wit air so they would float. Such an activity obviously required one mights powerful set of lungs…”

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

Smiling (Non-)Buddha

Lue Mnjun's enigmantic grins are everywhere.

The smiling work of leading Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun is everywhere–huge, grinning self-portraits, often in bubblegum colors. Taking Kenny to an all-day football (soccer) tournament yesterday, passed this. Ethan felt the smiles were genuine, goofy happiness. The Times piece linked above suggests the smiles may be the “illusion of happiness headed toward extinction.” Lue is part of what some call China’s Cynical Realism school, which meets the despair of contemporary urban China sardonically, with a sense of the absurd. Take it straight or metaphorically–Yue’s famous smiles are referencing Buddha’s smile. I don’t pretend to get Beijing life today. But I often think of a student, native of the city whose home was razed as part of the rezoning of low-rise alleys so high-rise towers could rise, who said, “I’m homesick every day.” And of an Edison, NJ dad born here and now back several years, for a hedge fund, who gets lost driving his own hometown.
My students’ latest sets of writing have wrestled the inexplicable delays in banning waste (“sewer”) oil from returning to the food stream; the wrongness of not letting a good candidate who wasn’t hand-picked run for office, and the anger on campus when hundreds of students were forced to “volunteer” for the administration, with work sometimes lasting until midnight, under penalty of disciplinary action. And there’s this. The smog (using the Embassy’s Air Quality Index, or AQI) has been above 400 this week & today, a multiple of emergency health conditions almost impossible to express. I didn’t put Ethan in his mask yesterday because our Chinese playdate didn’t have them. My friend said it was just fog, rolling in before the rain.

Forest Park, beside the Olympic stadia

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.”

***

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

***
***

“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.”

***
“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.”

***

“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.”

***

“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.”

***

“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.”

***

“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.”

***

“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.”

***

“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.”

***

“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.”