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Thoughts on Chinese Culture and Teaching

We have had very interesting discussions with some of my older students. One of them, who will remain nameless here, described the Chinese character as basically selfish, in that everyone just considers his own self-interest or the interests of his immediate family. He or she said that few people pay attention to the law, and that most everyone tries to get away with things and cut corners. We talked about the traffic situation in Xiamen as an example of this. Traffic laws are not enforced and pedestrians have no rights whatsoever. When two drivers get to a corner at the same time he said, each one doesn't wait for the light, and they both try to go first (basically a game of chicken).

I asked how selfishness fits with the desire to save face, and the concern about what others think of them. The Chinese character is very complicated (s)he said, agreeing with me, that there is a kind of built in contradiction between being selfish, trying to get away with things, and concern about what others will think. It seems that if you can get away with something without anyone noticing, then face saving is not an issue. I asked about the contradiction between a very controlling government, and a people that are always trying to break rules. He/She nodded and agreed that here was another complicated issue. From his/her perspective Westerners are much more likely to obey the rules and do things fairly. Perhaps he/she said, because there are more negative consequences if they get caught trying to get away with something. From this I understood that you can get away with a lot here in China, so long as you don't challenge the government openly. Nobody seems to care about enforcing the laws and that is one reason why there is so much corruption. Of course, if there is a public scandal and you happen to be the fall guy, the consequences can be lethal.

Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between rigid centralized authority and individual rule breaking. The more tightly controlled you are from above, the more you try to get yours because there is so much inequality built into the system. Or maybe the Chinese have always been ruthless businessmen? As everyone knows by now, quality control is often lacking. I have experienced this in a direct way. So far we have had to have an electrician come into our apartment three times, to repair switches and lights, not to mention the lock on the front door which is about to break. When I told people in Cihina that I lived in a two hundred year old house at home, they were amazed. They said no one lives in a house more than 20 or 30 years. After that they tear it town. The implication was that they tear it down because it was put up so badly that it might fall down if they didn't. Planned obsolescence is a fine art here, or maybe its not planned? The constant construction is not just because of a fast growing economy.


The longer we are here, the more I realize just how conservative a society China really is, and not just the government The other night, we read a short article on values. I won't go into detail, but there were three classifications, and when I asked the students in the class where they would put themselves, all said they were traditionalists, whose main characteristic is an adherence to traditional values such as hard work, obedience to authority, and doing things the way they have always been done. They all talk of being raised by parents who on the one hand, would overprotect them to the point of cooking and cleaning for them while they were in college, but on the other hand expected total obedience. Any questioning would result in a beating. It is not just the education system that stifles individual creativity, but also the family structure remains highly rigid, based on Confucian values.

Children are taught that their parents always know what is best for them, and from a very early age parents decide what their their children will study, based on their test scores. These tests are based on rote memory . It is almost impossible to switch fields at some point later in life, because most kids are exposed to a very narrow range of ideas and information. As one person in the class put it, from age 4 or 5 children are pushed to enter a race for a good job or career so everything is scheduled for them. They have almost no time to have fun and and really not allowed to be children. Independence is simply not valued. This is slowly, very slowly, starting to change, but the pressure not to disappoint your parents who have sacrificed so much on your behalf is enormous. Even if your family has money, and you don't have to worry about a job, there is still enormous pressure to live up to your responsibilities and continue to expand the family business. Boys feel this more than girls, because they are still heavily favored and more is expected of them. Given all of this, it is really not surprising that the government can continue to operate in the way that it does. And this is not to say that on an private basis people don't question the government, but they have obviously been raised to obey authority and focus on their families.

One night someone asked me to teach more "business English", not surprising since all of them are in one kind of business or another. I suggested that we might want to brainstorm different ideas about how to do this. I explained what this meant, and they agreed it was a good idea. I asked whether brainstorming was ever something that was done at their workplace, and the answer was a definitive no. It was clearly a very non-Chinese idea.

China seems to be at a crucial time in its long history. Either it will continue to open itself to new ideas which will inevitably force greater changes, both in the government and the family structure, or the forces of conservatism, so strongly rooted in the fabric of Chinese culture, will reassert themselves, and China will shut itself off from the world, as it has many times in the past. Probably the most likely outcome, at least in the relatively short term, will be a constant push-pull between these different forces. As long as this it the case, it will continue to hamper the ability of the Chinese people to respond to world events, economic and political, in innovative ways.

You could argue that these same forces are at work in many parts of the world. It seems that the fundamentalist and traditionalist thinkers are in the ascendancy, at least in the United States. When it comes to conservative social, and increasingly even economic values, large segments of the US population are not so different than the Chinese.


My world culture class with the advanced day students continues to be a challenge. At the end of each chapter in the book there are a couple of "critical thinking" questions, and I said that I would ask these same questions on a test, which the school administration scheduled in two weeks. I went over the answers in class, but many did not understand the concepts, although they did know the meaning of the words. Of course, most of them made it clear that they had not read the book as it has nothing to do with learning English per se. I typed out a study page which contained all of the important information, and they seemed happy with this. I will obviously have to give up on my fantasies of getting them to think critically.

For the most part, they are ignorant of world events outside of China, and many don't seem to care. For example, very few of them know about the genocide in Rwanda, and they don't know that Laos and Burma border China. Of course, plenty of college kids in the US know little about events in Africa and nothing about Chinese history, but I think that more of them would be able to pick out the important things to talk about in an oral report. It's not that these kids are stupid either, but they are used to sitting in large classes of more than 50 students and being lectured to. Their role has just been to memorize whatever their teachers have told them, and they are heavily criticized for making any mistakes. This is not an atmosphere which is conducive to independent thinking.

Speaking of which, we have questioned the administration as to why tests are necessary at all. Many of the students don't take them seriously and know they will "pass" no matter what their grade happens to be. The powers that be at WECL however, want to maintain that this is a real school and how can they do that without tests. Bob, the head teacher, has turned out to be a very controlling anal type, who is full of unhelpful advice and totally unreceptive to new ideas. We try to avoid him as much as possible, but with a staff of six, this is not always easy to do. The other teachers have also been a bit of a disappointment. You might think that anyone who would choose to go abroad to China and teach would be interesting and adventurous, but that has not turned out to be the case. We prefer spending informal time with the kids and going out to dinner with them, which we do often. As it turns out, we spend more time with the less advanced students since we teach more classes with them, and since Bob has more or less corralled the others into his orbit.

The four months we have signed up for will be the right amount of time. We soon get a week off and will fly to Guilin. That will be a welcome change.

Posted by jonshapiro 24.02.2012 05:32 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad

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