Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sense and Common Sense

Many of us have thought of the seemingly nonsensical actions of our Chinese friends: throwing lit cigarette butts into trash cans, driving on the sidewalk or causing bottleneck traffic situations because everyone crams into the only  available lane at once, opening a bus window when the air conditioning is cranking out cool air... and others. Let's not forget that first-time flyer who, desiring a breath of fresh air, opened the emergency exit door. Fortunately, the plane was on the ground. And the other one, on another plane, forged a quick route off by opening the door closest to him. He deployed the slide, causing 100,000 Yuan worth of damage.

We westerners look upon these misdeeds of our Chinese friends, shake our heads and wonder how in the world they came to their ideas.

Common sense: the basic ability to perceive, understand and judge things, which is shared by ( or: common to) nearly all the people, and can be reasonably expected of nearly all people without any need for debate.

It seems the people who have fallen through the 'nearly' hole are Chinese.

If you think about it, what the general public might perceive as ridiculous in China makes a lot of sense. Man on plane wanted fresh air; he opened the door. Man on plane wanted off plane; he established an exit. Man finished with cigarette, he threw it away. All traffic lanes blocked but sidewalk or bike lane is open; drive on sidewalk/bike lane.  

While all of this is logical/rational for the person doing the deed, it seems that person fails to regard the world as a whole and the other people in it. That's what makes this brand of logic downright dangerous at times. And, what is startling about that is that Chinese culture is supposedly collectivistic.

Collectivism: the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology or social outlook that emphasizes the significance of groups – their identities, goals, rights, outcomes, etc., and tends to analyze issues in those terms.

If China is indeed collectivist, how can one driver take it upon himself to take over the sidewalk, where people and bikes abound? How can the man on the plane ignore that big 'emergency exit only' sign, painted bold red on the door?

Here's another aspect of China's alleged collectivism that totally escapes me.

Children in orphanages: unloved, unwanted, underprivileged, and there are a lot of them. Foreigners will adopt Chinese babies but, except in rare cases, Chinese will not. “A family member will adopt a baby or child from another family member but will not adopt a strange child” I was told. For instance: an infertile couple might adopt a sibling's child, and that sibling can have another child. Meanwhile, children in orphanages languish.

That doesn't make collective sense to me. There are needy children in China, there are Chinese parents who want/need a child. Perfect match, right? Not so much, according to my Chinese friends. 'Keep it in the family' is the rationale, apparently because an adopted child might not be as devoted to family as a child born into a family. No stranger's blood allowed is another excuse given (and no children with defects, either – but that's beside the point).

It seems that the Chinese are collectivist only up to their own special group: tribal clan, village folk, family, friends, room mates in a dorm, an office group – in short, people who, for one reason or the other are bound together. Beyond that boundary - that collective, individualism asserts itself.

Individualism: Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires, and so, value independence and self-reliance, and advocate that interests of the individual should take precedence over the social group.

Now we're getting somewhere! That explains far better the crazy logic of our Chinese friends, but does nothing to address the collective mentality when it comes to family and friends, tribemembers or dorm mates.

I think sociologists need to come up with a new phrase to accurately describe Chinese society: individual collectivism. Doesn't that sound more apt?

Ah, Ikea!

As a foreigner whose friends and family all shop at Ikea and have many Swedish-made goods, I enjoy visiting that store. I can walk through the children's department and see many toys that my grandchildren play with or think longingly of my daughter's home, decorated with functional Ikea pieces. Oh, the many hours my stateside friends and I have spent, strolling through those displays, laughing and admiring – but seldom buying anything.

A couple of years ago (while living in China), I so wanted to visit an Ikea store that I went to Shanghai just for that purpose. Except for the price markers and information plaquards being primarily in Chinese, I felt just as I did when visiting that store stateside. That was both good and bad: suffering the sweet longing of my loved ones and recalling the fun times spent in their company simultaneously brought me closer to them and made me feel so very far away. Maybe going to Shanghai to walk through a store I'd walked through countless times seems silly, especially as there is so much else to do there, but who can say what the heart or stubborn mind wants at any given time?

I was elated when Ikea opened a branch in Wuhan. Now, instead of a 5-hour bullet train ride and a hotel stay, I only needed a 2-hour ride on public transport to satisfy my longing for that Ikea feeling. And, because one of my more attention-getting lessons involves food culture in the west, I can invite my students on an outing to that store. Several times, I chaperoned avid groups through Ikea's marketplace and basked in their delight.

Last time I was stateside, again walking the wide aisles of that store with my daughter, I recalled my dear students gasping in awe at the comfort and convenience Swedish furniture can bring.

I have that same problem with Pizza Hut and Burger King: when I'm here, enjoying those establishments, I miss the states. When I'm there, partaking, I think of my China home. Funny how a commercial venture can do that.

Mind you, I'm not an expat who seeks only a western bubble within China. As much as possible, I'd rather 'go Chinese': buy from local stores, visit historical places, live à la Chinese. But sometimes there is comfort in familiarity, and for those reasons, as a treat, I'll undertake the long journey on public transport to visit that store where my family likes to play. I go for the bittersweet memories and a connection to family, but the Chinese patrons are there to buy foreign goods. That's what this blog is about: while everyone is enjoying western stores, goods and restaurants, what is happening to the Chinese market?

Because KFC, McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks and Pizza Hut; Carrefour, Metro, Walmart and Ikea are always crowded when I go there. I doubt that the masses plan their dining and shopping around my schedule to trick me into believing that those concerns are well frequented, so it stands to reason that those western establishments are the target of many a Chinese on a regular basis. Equally reasonable is the assumption that millions – if not billions of Yuan are pouring in to overseas money coffers from eager Chinese buyers. News reports support that belief: Chinese prefer to buy foreign made goods over their own national brands.

What does that do for industry and the economy in China?

All foreign businesses I've been to in China are staffed exclusively by Chinese. That means jobs for the people, and that's good: people have money to spend. Of course, the businesses in question pay a percentage of the total sales to China, but make no mistake: the parent companies are pulling in a hefty profit. Foreign companies are getting rich off Chinese longing for 'status brands'. Meanwhile, Chinese brands can't seem to get a leg up in world marketing.

Does anyone see a problem with that?

This weekend, Gary texted: “Would you like to go to Ikea?”

Do cows give milk??? Of course! I'd love a trip to Ikea with my good friend here, so I can share with him my family's pastime.

But then... last time I took Gary to Ikea – the first time he had ever been, he was not impressed. In fact, he commented how poor the quality was. I was ruffled. This was IKEA, whose toys resided in my grand-children's rooms! Where my family had purchased many of their decorations and home accessories!  Where we had spent precious hours together! And here, I wanted to share that experience with him...

He said he could buy higher quality furniture for much cheaper on the Chinese market. After I calmed down from my feeling of slight, I saw the wisdom of his approach. Here, a Chinese man is supporting the Chinese economy by buying Chinese, just as many Americans claim they would only 'buy American'. Imagine my surprise when, on this second visit he spent over 50,000 yuan on furniture and accessories at Ikea! And that he had an Ikea membership card!

I wonder what changed his mind?

And I wonder what will turn the tide for the average consumer in China to 'buy Chinese' rather than pour their hard-earned money into western pockets?   

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Is Full Immersion Learning Possible?

Of course it is, you might argue. After all, isn't that how children learn to speak their native tongues? But what about learning a second language, while still embroiled in learning your first one? Is full immersion English learning possible in China?

I have a clear idea of how I'd like to engage in such teaching. Parents, teacher and students form a learning community.Teacher works really hard to impart fundamentals such as speech and grammar in an informal setting – say, sitting around in a circle, with nary a desk in sight. For example:

Topic: Colors

Each color is introduced, and its name repeated until spoken correctly by all of the students. Plenty of visual aids to go along with the oral lesson. Of course, hands on materials such as flash cards and magnetic boards should be used. Once the colors'  names are learned (by both parents and students), connections are made. The red dress, the green sweater, and so on. The topic is further reinforced through songs about colors, and then a scavenger hunt ensues, wherein parent/child teams must find different colored items on a prepared list. Everything is done in English. 

Ideally, parents actively participate in the learning and encourage their children. While each lesson only lasts at most 45 minutes – long enough for a young child's attention span to remain captivated, the reason the parents should sit in is so that the learning is reinforced at home. Having class every 3 days should be sufficient to ensure proper pronunciation of the subject material, and grammar fundamentals are learned passively, by repetition of proper sentence structure throughout the lessons. 

I've tried twice to engage in this style of full immersion teaching, both times with small children, around age 5. Both time I met with less than stellar success.

The first time was in a more formal setting. My friends had set up a classroom environment, enrolled the students and saw to the administrative side of running a school. All I had to do was teach. I thought I had communicated, and we had agreed on how I would teach: actively, with students' and parents' participation. What I was met with were parents that sat in the other room, drinking tea and wondering why the class was so loud. They disapproved of the dancing and singing and playing, of the hands-on method of learning, and flat out refused to actively participate. In the end, their complaints led me to teach in a more traditional Chinese style: emphasis on rote learning, writing, plenty of sitting at desks and raising of hands. I couldn't reconcile that archaic image with what I picture a full immersion English class for young learners to be. The experiment ended a few months later.   

After that dismal failure, I shelved the idea of teaching full immersion English. I wasn't feeling well at that time anyway, and rushing across town twice a week to conduct class in such an oppressive atmosphere didn't help me feel any better. Although it was nice to have the extra money, I couldn't handle the stifling environment.

That was a few years back, and I don't know what happened to those friends. They 'dumped' me after that failed experiment. I went to the coffee shop they owned in an arty part of town and their shop had closed down. Recently I found out they had moved back to Thailand. And that's the end of that story.

These days I feel so much better! I have tons of energy and, aside from painful twinges from my still healing leg, race around and do and do. As you know from 2 posts back (See I'm Back! Entry), I'm teaching as many courses as my Chinese counterparts at my university, and that keeps me pretty busy, but long before that – before I broke my leg, even, I had made a promise to my friend, Sam. I wanted to volunteer at his little daughter's kindergarten, teaching English. He was over the moon at the prospect!

Starting fall semester, I reminded him of my promise and averred I was physically capable and more than willing to make good on it in spite of my busy schedule at the uni. However, he countered that volunteering at Erica's school would pose a problem because I would, in effect, be taking work away from the English teacher already working there. He suggested a compromise: we would hold class in his apartment, with parents in attendance.

I had explained to him the idea that I had for full immersion and he agreed it was possibly the best way to teach English, you see. At his proposal, my dream of full immersion resurged. Surely, with Sam working with me, I could make a go of it!

I'm not faulting anyone except myself. Bear that in mind while you read this next.

Sam and his wife Penney arranged for 6 students to come on Saturday morning, parents in tow. The lesson started well. Everyone was eager for what might turn out to be a learning discovery, and the parents were certainly appreciative that I would volunteer my time. That first lesson, all of the parents sat in and practiced. They translated everything I said. Soon, the kids faced me while I talked, and then turned to their parents for translation. The parents, naturally, obliged.

Discussing the class afterwards with Sam, I indicated that translation was not the point of the class, but that the kids should get used to following simple instructions in English: Sit down (I demonstrate by sitting down), Stand up (raise my hands and stand to indicate standing) and so on. Even if the children did not recognize the gestures, the parents should have, and they did, instructing the kids in Chinese on what to do. 

The next week, only 2 parents sat in. The week after that, all of the parents had retreated to the other room and closed the door, so as to not distract the little tykes from the lesson. I suspect it is because I didn't clearly communicate my vision of how the class should run.

Of course, the kids like the lessons because they are fun and interactive, but they have a hard time recognizing that it is learning time, not playing time, so they get unruly. Erica, Sam's daughter, went to get her mother, who sat in on the class. She disciplined while I attempted to teach. While reading Snow White (in English), I reconciled myself to another failure.  

As of now, the plan has been scrubbed. It is a lot of stress for me – busy as I am anyway, and then preparing materials and conducting class; for Sam and Penney, who end up hosting the kids left by their parents, and for the parents themselves, who have plenty of other things to do on their days off. This colder weather is not helping, either. I still believe a full immersion curriculum is possible but I haven't found the right way to do it.

Do you agree with me that a good teacher should connect with her students, and have a good understanding with their parents (if they are younger learners)? That's what I strive for in my classes. And, while we have no trouble bonding, it seems that teaching is an either/or proposition. Either I should engage in a formal setting where the kids recognize they are to go into 'learning mode', or we play and all thoughts of learning is out the window. Naturally, the parents do not consider their children to be learning if they are playing.

I can't seem to find a middle ground. I would love to make a go of this type of teaching, but apparently cannot communicate how it is supposed to work. Or, am I battling the age-old Chinese ideal of learning: desk, raised hands, lectures, and such? Is such full immersion possible if the parents do not reinforce what their children learn?

Do you have any suggestions?  

Exploding Students

Part of my duties as foreign teacher calls for my involvement in competitions, specifically judging student competitions. To tell the truth I don't like seeing my students pitted against one another, nor do I like being put in the position to affirm one's ability over another's. As a teacher, I believe I should promote all of my students equally. How must a poorly performing competitor feel when their beloved foreign teacher deems him/her less capable than others? 

Conversely, one aspect of these extracurricular activities I enjoy is interacting with students in a non-classroom setting. We get to laugh and play together, and pose for the inevitable pictures. It is nice to see these kids in a non-traditional setting, where they feel free to let down their hair and laugh a little. They make the most of the occasion, festooning the room with balloons and streamers, drawing on the board and playing music.

As English club activities are organized and hosted strictly by students, I have the additional pleasure of working with kids who might be taciturn and recalcitrant in class, but flourish in managing a competition. Felix is such a student. He is bright and handsome but shy and soft-spoken. As a member of my largest class, I seldom have time to talk only with him. So, judging the Non-English majors talent competition, put together and engineered by Felix, gave us a chance to hang out and just talk.

Usually, other teachers form the judging panel along with me but this week, all of the other teachers had prior commitments. Felix and two other students judged the affair with me. That put  me in a bind because all of the competition information was in Chinese: judging criteria, rules and what talents would be displayed. Normally, other teachers translate these documents for me but this time, there was only Felix.

I was able to read some of the criteria. Felix translated everything else. “This column is for performance, this one is for talent, this one for feeling and this one for... (he checks his phone for translation)... exploding.” he said, earnestly.

Explosion? Really?

Really! Apparently, there is a Chinese phrase that means something like: 'come out of the box with a shining performance', like a sprinter bursting out of the starting blocks and rocketing down the track. It might be akin to what English speakers would call 'a shooting star' – someone who really performs well. Or: giving an explosive performance.

My fuzzy head never made it past 'exploding'. As you might remember from the Misunderstandings entry posted last March, sometimes my brain visualizes something very different from what is actually being said. By the time Felix explained the 'sprinter out of starting blocks' meaning of 'explode', I was already laughing to tears at the idea of having to rank students on the violence of their explosions.

“OH, blood spatter on the ceiling! Great explosion! You get 30 points.”

As always when I laugh like a demented person, the poor hapless person next to me - in this case, Felix gaped at me, wondering what he had said wrong to cause such mirth. When I was finally able to tell him what I had imagined, he too succumbed to gales of merriment.

It was the first time I'd seen him laugh so unabashedly.  It was wonderful to behold: a great bonding moment.

Others now looked at us slack-jawed while we mopped tears from our eyes and tried to stifle our giggles. As the first competitor stepped onstage, he whispered: “Please don't tell my classmates about this!” I could understand he would be mortified if his peers knew, but I don't think he would mind me telling you about it.

Especially because, at the end of the competition, while I was still posing for pictures at the back of the room, Felix and others were taking down the decorations at the front. What to do with a bunch of balloons but pop them once they are no longer needed?

“Hey, Sophia!” Felix shouted, from across the room.


“Look! Explosion!” and he popped a balloon.

“OOH! Great explosion! You get 30 points!” and again, we succumbed to our private joke.

Such moments of camaraderie with students are so rare! These kids' demeanor is usually reverential, perhaps because I am a foreigner and most likely in part because I'm far older than they are. Seldom do I get to connect with a kid in such a way that we can share a joke. 'Exploding students' is no longer just a joke for me. It was a moment of closeness with a great kid who will go on to do great things. What a treasure!

I guess I should let you know that nobody actually exploded, but there was some fine talent on stage. A beautiful girl with a devoted boyfriend who brought her her violin. She then proceeded to wow us with her skill. Another pretty who read movie lines with such feeling I thought I was hearing the movie's actual soundtrack. A fine young man with a golden voice, and a couple who also dubbed a movie soundtrack, so seamlessly I had to keep looking at them to make sure they were talking, and hadn't turned out the movie's sound.

Yes, there's a lot of talent here. But... wouldn't you agree it takes talent to form bonds? In  my opinion, Felix was the most talented person in the room that day.