Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I found out yesterday that I'd won an essay competition. The deadline was back in early December so I'd forgotten about it.

To those who don’t come from China, China has always been a mysterious country. Like all interesting things, the more you know about China, the more mysterious it gets. I chose to come to Changde because it is in the heartlands of China, in both senses of the word. Changde is a perfect example of what modern China is. There is a famous English poem that begins:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wildflower
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
You would have to be an excellent Scientist to see a world in a grain of sand, and I am not a Scientist at all. So the best I can attempt is to see a world in this small city.
I remember hearing the word ‘Changde’ for the first time, I don’t know where I was exactly, but I was somewhere along the Li Jiang River, swimming under the rising sun. The only person who was around for miles was a girl wearing all-white and carrying a white sun-umbrella. I looked into the ‘Beginner’s Mandarin Chinese’ book that I took everywhere I went, and asked her where she is from. She said she is from a small city in the Hunan Province called Changde. She could not speak English with any confidence so it was the wordlessness of our communication, and the beauty of the surrounding area that made this memory particularly different to my earlier experiences of China. Before that time, my experience of China had been the sound of car-horns and loud pop music. I decided then, in the summer of 2007, that I wanted to come to this person’s hometown and experience what life was like in the heartlands of China.
I came to China in May 2007, and lived in Huizhou for a year, a wealthy coastal city between Shenzhen and Guangzhou. At the time the above-mentioned incident took place, my only Chinese was a few useful phrases and bits and pieces of vocabulary. There are some similarities between Huizhou and Changde: both are quite small cities by Chinese standards, both have factories and Universities that they are proud of, both have very pleasant and large parks. But there are differences: I have always thought that Changde represents more of a real China. It is far away from Hong Kong, and far away from coastal boomtowns like Shenzhen. It has had less exposure to foreign influence and foreign people. Its economy is constantly growing stronger like an old tree. But most people here have a limited understanding of the outside world.
For me to get a clear picture of what is happening in China, I just have to walk outside the campus of our University. Beside the campus where I live, there are people who live in houses made of tin and even houses made of bamboo. At night, if the roads are quiet, you can hear the local KTV from outside of their little houses. Recently, as I walked past one such place late at night, there was an old woman sweeping leaves and singing along to “Make the Whole World Love Completely.” She stopped singing when she noticed me walking past. It’s moments like this that help me to see a world in this small city. It’s a mixture of ancient and modern, rich and poor, local and universal.
I chose to come to China and teach because there are not many jobs in which one can influence people. And in most of those jobs, you have to wait until you have grey hair to reach such a position. Now, ordinary Chinese people are ready to be exposed to foreign ideas and foreign people. Everywhere I go, I meet curious people. Their questions are predictable “Which country are you from? How long have you been here? Have you found a wife here yet?” But the important thing is that they want to listen to me, and they want to know what I think.
Without curiosity there is no intelligence. Having to answer personal questions everywhere can be inconvenient and uncomfortable, but it is also very empowering to meet so many people who want to listen. During the Beijing Olympics, the authorities introduced the “Eight Don’t Asks,” questions that local people should not ask foreigners, like “how old are you?” and “how much money do you earn?” but I am glad there are no such rules in Changde because it is very important that the few foreigners who live here take time to communicate with ordinary Chinese people. Last week, in a restaurant, I was approached by a man in his thirties. I could tell by the way he walked that he would approach me confidently. When he did approach me, I could tell from his accent and his use of words, that he had learnt English from Native-Speakers. This kind of person is increasing in Changde all of the time. He wanted to make a friend with me, this is because he wanted to know more about where I come from, and get more practice in my language. China is now a country that associates learning other languages with self-improvement.
Where I grew up, school children would traditionally study a modern European language, like French or German, as well as an ancient language that was no longer spoken: such as Latin or Ancient Greek. The ways in which schools teach modern languages is very different to the way they teach Ancient languages. When teaching a modern language, they would prepare us for dealing with real-life people from those countries, and understanding important cultural differences. When teaching Ancient languages, they focused on Literature, and the process of translating ancient texts, it would be unnecessary to teach a person how to converse in one of those languages. The way English is taught in Chinese public schools is much closer to the way Ancient Languages were taught in my childhood.
English is not a language that the people of Changde have daily access to. It is a very foreign language. “Foreign” is a word that doesn’t have an accurate translation into Chinese. It comes from the ancient “ferren” meaning out-of-doors But English is spoken in numerous countries, and in all of those countries except for England, it was a ‘foreign’ language before it became standard. Nothing in English can have the same meaning as ‘waiguode,’ because no English-speaking country is as populous as China, and China has a unique history and a unique relationship with the outside world. In Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, South Africa, or the UK, it is impossible to be of foreign appearance. In China, if you are black or white, it shapes your identity. A negative foreigner would complain that it is impossible to become a normal citizen here in Changde, but a positive person would use their outsider status to learn more about this ancient language and culture and develop understanding between China and the English-speaking world. There are few more important issues in the world today than establishing good relations between these two vast and varied cultures. The aim is not so that we can always agree, but so that we can understand why we sometimes disagree. Changde has given me an opportunity to play my own small part.
Two of the largest influences on Chinese life are Confucianism and Communism. In the beginning, these two schools of thought were as foreign to me as the teachings of Jesus or Plato are to a Chinese person. But there is a line from Karl Marx and a line from Confucius that can help us all to develop as people, and for understanding between China and the English-speaking world to improve. The first is from Karl Marx: “a foreign language is a weapon in the battle of life.” The second is from Confucius “don’t do to others as you wouldn’t want done to yourself.”
The sentence from Marx is not entirely wise, and not as gentle as the best of what Confucius said. But it makes the point that making an effort to know another language makes us stronger. It helps us understand why different cultures understand the world differently. It helps us deal with people who come from exotic, far-away places. Confucius lived at a time when England was populated by illiterate tribes whose languages are no longer spoken, and two thousand years before white people began to live in America. But every civilization, from Ancient Greece to the Middle-East, has words similar to those that Confucius said, and every society uses those words to guide itself morally.
I remember Confucius’ words when I go into a nearby supermarket. There is a local child who spends his time in the supermarket talking to strangers, and he pays particular attention to me. Sometimes I feel too tired to talk, but I must remember to treat this person how I would like to be treated. I have conversations with him, and sometimes it attracts an audience. I must never refuse to answer his questions about the differences between our two cultures, because it is important that this generation of children grow-up not just with a better understanding of English, but a better understanding of the countries that use it.
There is a poem on Poet’s Wall called “Some people” . In the poem, it says
“Some people
Ride on others' backs and yell ‘I am magnificent’
Some people
Crouch and act as other people’s horse”

It is easy as foreigner in Changde to do the first of these two things: to take advantage of people, to allow strangers to pander to us, to play with young girls’ hearts. But it is much more rewarding to do the second of these things. As a foreigner in Changde, it is possible to educate people about the outside world, it is possible to satisfy people’s curiosity, it is possible to present new ideas to people, it is possible to help people grow-up.
The last two lines of the poem are:
“He who lives to make more people live more,
The people look up to him at a great height.”
In China, it is commonly believed that English is the common language of the world. But my coming here as an English teacher is not just in order to pass on knowledge. It is also for my own education. I don’t believe education is something that only happens in classrooms. It happens to all of us everywhere from birth until death. In Changde, I have found education in the strangest places, from hearing an old woman singing to herself, to answering the questions of a curious boy in the supermarket. I have also found it in magnificent places, from Poet’s Wall to the University. Self-improvement is a process that should never end. And both myself and Changde are involved in it.

1 comment:

Nick Herman said...

Inspiring and well-written essay, Kevin. I am very glad to know you. I didn't quite realize until you wrote this how much Changde sounds like Dangyang, where I lived and taught, or any other countless number of towns out there in the hinterlands, the more "real china"; our reasons for going to both locations were pretty much the same, in any case.

Your comment about English being taught the way Latin might be taught in the West is interesting, and I'm not quite sure I had thought of it that way before. Certainly, there is an emphasis on text rather than spoken conversation, but is there the same reverence one would have (or is supposed to have) for Latin or Greek? On the one hand, learning such a language for us is ostensibly a grounding in "our" European history, the roots of our modern languages, so it seems different from the foreignness of English to Chinese, though I understand your point. I'll have to think more about this one.

I take issue with this statement:
"In Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, South Africa, or the UK, it is impossible to be of foreign appearance."

Really? Perhaps that is your personal experience, as you are of a pretty standard Anglo-Saxon appearance, but I have not found that to be the case. I have been in parts of the US where I definitely felt out of place by my appearance, and several times when I was in the UK, I was asked if I speak English, as I look somewhat ethnic/darker.

Within diverse cities themselves, there are significant segregations along racial and class lines. In the Bayview district of San Francisco, where I have spent a fair amount of time teaching, almost all residents are black, and if you are not, you definitely stand out and feel foreign within that micro-environment. I was on my bike down there the other week to teach a class, sitting at a stop-light, and a middle-aged black woman came up to me, stared, and held her hand up like a gun to my head, and said, "bitch."

Returning to the issues of what education means, how to accomplish it, and how this ties in to living a fully realized life for oneself and others, this image speaks for itself. The sight of a well-educated, healthy young person from a prosperous family teaching impoverished children in what is basically a ghetto is not a common one, and despite my good intentions, I am greeted with suspicion and some malevolence, because *I* am judged to be representative of an oppressive class that has infringed wrongly and made its fortune on the backs of the incarcerated and beaten down. This is just a few miles from people who live in multi-million dollar houses. How much more foreign can you get?

The way superficial characteristics become dominating features of your identity in China is a result of long-standing isolation and subsequent curiosity. Although it can become tiresome, you and I know it's mostly innocent enough, and people there are generally hungry for outside understanding, even though they might typecast you. The situation over here is somewhat more depressing in a way, in that firmly entrenched ideas about "the other," within our own societies still continue to confuse us, playing into the hands of insipid consumerism and pandering bureaucrats.

I have been thinking very hard about the state of education here in the past year, and the most frustrating aspect is seeing that many of those involved in it are not really interested in solving these ingrained problems of (ever wider) inequality and ignorance. As it is, public schools here stick to the same tired models, despite being utterly broken, filled to the brim with certifications and qualifications, although they do nothing but discourage intelligent people from entering the field. Private schools generally don't bother with these, because they don't have to, because they already know they have no bearing to reality, and are accountable to parents who are paying $$$ for their kids to go there. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.