Sunday, December 7, 2014

What Did You Say?

In an early episode of Dr. Who, The Doctor brought British Prime Minister Harriet Jones' reign to an end with just 6 words: 'Don't you think she looks tired?', whispered in her assistant's ear. Because we're not discussing Dr. Who, I'll leave to you to wonder why he did it and what the fallout was. Instead I'll use this prime example to illustrate how important it is that we foreigners, especially those employed as teachers be careful about what we tell our 'audience'.

Everybody has preconceived notions of things they know only vaguely about. Most of my students, and indeed most anyone I've met since living in China has averred they've built their perception of life in America on what they see in movies and TV. The richness, the vastness, the cars, educational standards... even how holidays are celebrated.

I tend to have a more realistic view of life in America, if not a more jaded one, I'm sad to say. I've spent some terribly hard years, and a few bountiful ones there. As Chinese parents dream of their progeny earning a diploma abroad, I shake my head over how the education  system seems to be failing. While people here groan with envy over Black Friday, I recall reports of fights, gunshots and tramplings. While my Chinese friends see Christmas as a magical time, I despair over its loss of reverence and freefall into commercialism. And I won't even touch on weddings.

The nationwide riots and 'die-ins' over the Ferguson incident have left me scoffing over what my students think is the land of equality and ultimate freedom, even as I wish I could negate the impact of the grand jury's decision to not indict the policeman who fired the most recent shot heard 'round the world. I wonder what my students make of this latest stain on America's race relations stance?

Here is where we foreigners need to be very careful. We do not have the right to destroy our Chinese friends' ideals, but we do have the obligation to adjust their perception. 

By the nature of our relationship, our students learn from us: not just curriculum, but about life. As teachers, we are bound to help shape our charges' ideals. It cannot be done egoistically. As a person who has had the privilege of experiencing life in America, I must not allow my opinions to become fact. 

Most of the kids at my school cannot believe I would give up life in the land of their dreams to live in what they perceive is a society with restricted personal freedom and few chances for advancement. The question: “Why did you come to China?” must be answered very carefully. To give reasons such as: economic advantages (couldn't find a job), personal safety (hearing gunshots, not safe to walk around at night, or even during the day in some neighborhoods), discrimination, or high cost of living all serve to tarnish America's image and mar their ideal.

And  here we teachers have another obligation: promote China. So many youths here yearn to live the good life abroad, with quite a few targeting America. But what is wrong with China? After all: didn't we choose to live and work here? Doesn't that count for something?

As adults and global citizens, we have the obligation to help these students gain a clearer worldview. Not everything in America is good; not everything in China is bad. Fundamentally, it comes down to personal choice, but it must be an informed choice. Unbiased information is what we need to offer our students, our friends and anyone who is curious about life abroad.   

Conversely, we should not go overboard to represent our countries of origin in unrealistically bright hues. I sat in on a lecture given by another foreign teacher, about family life. He completely neglected to report that some families are completely estranged, with members not even willing to come together for holidays or funerals. Or that sometimes, family elders are shunted into homes where no family visits. He gave the impression that families in America connect by love and desire rather than obligation, something that most students here feel burdened by.

There is a measure of truth in that assessment, but his illustration of family life in America, coupled with countless movies of families gathered around the turkey at Thanksgiving or the Christmas ham no doubt served to send his class into paroxysms of envy. Such longing was later revealed in open conversation.

The danger of promoting such adulation is neglect or abandonment of Chinese traditional values. While these kids lick their lips over turkey and hugs and that Norman Rockwell feeling, it seems they are turning further away from their own, poignant culture. One student told me they do not revere their traditions as much because they are more 'modern'.

What does that mean?

For both China and America, the holiday season approaches. Americans have enjoyed their turkeys and possibly their Black Friday shopping with an eye toward Christmas; the Chinese government is planning their Lunar New Year extravaganza. Said extravaganzas are looked upon more and more with jaundiced eye by the Chinese. The gala – CCTV's show that, in recent years has been judged as trite, the fireworks now deemed disturbing and dangerous, the agony of travel in spite of more trains being put into service... none of it is gleefully anticipated.

Christmas shopping is what people in China are looking forward to. Already the malls are decked out and the merchandise entices. One no longer hears Gong Xi Ni Fa Cai - the Chinese song wishing luck and prosperity, but Jingle Bells and other English carols. On Christmas, stores stay open late and shoppers expect deep price cuts. It is all in fun, but it is yet another step away from traditional Chinese celebration.

For the first time in the 5 years I've been here, I will be 'home' for Christmas. When I told my students, they immediately envisaged every tender family scene from every movie they'd ever watched. Or, perhaps they were parlaying my homecoming into theirs, scheduled for about a month from now. Regardless: all of the feelings ascribed to rejoining loved ones after a long absence were present in their comments and in their eyes.

This is what we foreigners must absolutely not destroy.

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