transit and transitions
MY TIME IN CHINA
Martin is a qualified educator and ardent blogger from Montréal,
Quebec. Although he has travelled parts of Europe and Asia somewhat
extensively, he has only managed to visit Toronto for the first
time last month. He gets bored easily, has a hard time falling
asleep, and is still waiting for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reunion;
preferably on Netflix. He keeps a blog, humbly titled The
Pride of Suzhou. For Part I of the interview, click HERE.
O: You were (are) an educator. Does China do a better job than
the West in developing the mind of its students? Do the Chinese
study in groups? If yes, what can we learn from this?
MARTIN: Before I begin on this topic, let me begin by giving you
some context. Most of the students I taught came from upper middle
class backgrounds and were simply referred to as ‘rich.’
Their parents owned factories for the most part, and these kinds
of students are usually raised first by their grandparents. When
I would walk around the residential areas of Xiangcheng District,
I would almost exclusively see elderly people caring for and playing
with their grandchildren. Initially, I thought that it might be
too hard on the elderly
to raise loud, playful, energetic children -- but I was wrong;
the grandparents absolutely love spending time with their grandkids.
Being that the parents are largely unavailable due to work pressures,
they seem to compensate by lavishing kids with money.
children begin their education early . . . at my school, they
began at the age of three years old: infants. It was traumatic
for them to be pushed into a boarding school at that age. Every
September you would see the little ones wailing for their parents.
It was sad.
that middle class kids begin learning English so early, it’s
absolutely appalling that so few dare to speak it. Whether it’s
to save face or due to lack of ability or simply because they’d
rather not be bothered -- being an English speaker in China is
tough, except for maybe Shanghai, but even then, it depends on
where you go. To improve my chances of getting an English speaking
driver, I would go to 5-star hotels and pick out a high end cab.
But even then, I don’t think I met one cab driver who spoke
English. Luckily, I managed to learn enough rudimentary Chinese
on my own to get by (using Pimsleur audio CDs and the good old
education, the traditional Chinese model is all about keeping
your head down, not asking questions, repeating after the teacher,
and copying from pre-existing texts. It’s the antithesis
to what I will refer to as contemporary standard Western education.
We value everything that Chinese culture discourages: asking questions,
being creative, making links, having strong opinions, arguing
your points, and working in groups. This made it very difficult
to teach in the way I would like to teach., to teach in the way
that would benefit these children, or that might empower or enlighten
them. You can surely sense my frustration.
also come from an educational background where corporal punishment
is allowed. I’m not saying that they are beaten black and
blue, but what I will say is that teachers can slap students who
get out of line. A colleague of mine who taught at the primary
school level reported seeing a kid being kicked by his teacher.
I can’t say how normal this is, I only know it happened
at my school.
high school teacher, I tried hard to have them create their own
content and share their own ideas, but most times students would
draw from some wooden script that they were taught to regurgitate
in the past (probably from a Chinese teacher). Most creative projects
would be twisted and turned to focus on what they know: China.
After writing a tourist brochure on China, I had given them a
research worksheet for them to fill out on a foreign country.
This way they could apply what they learned (writing about their
own country) to write about a different country that interested
them. Many students ended up turning in their second travel brochure
entitled “Foreign Country Brochure: Welcome to China.”
This resulted in me bashing my head against my desk repeatedly
for a whole week.
due to the one-child policy (which in 2015 was amended to a two-child
policy), there is a culture of overindulging children. These children
are sometimes referred to as Little Emperors (I’m not sure
what the equivalent is for girls.) The resulting entitlement felt
by many (mostly rich) kids make them somewhat challenging to teach.From
what I hear, students who compete in the public system (where
the best schools are to be found) are the cream of the crop.
O: You mentioned earlier that China ‘fetishizes’ westerners.
What about western culture: music, cinema. Is it true that many
Internet sites are unavailable in China?
MARTIN: The Great Firewall of China only indexes parts of the
Internet that it deems acceptable. This is but one of China’s
fun Orwellian characteristics. Websites blacklisted by The Party
(CCP) include, but are not limited to: YouTube, Google, Gmail,
Netflix, FaceBook, Vimeo, Tumblr, Pinterest., and of course, international
news outlets. Obviously, this also extends to phone apps (like
WhatsApp). To surmount this firewall, foreigners download a VPN
to trick their computer into thinking it’s connecting from
another country. A few Chinese residents also use VPNs, but I
believe the repercussions for them are much stronger and much
worse than for foreigners. The government turns a blind eye to
foreigners using VPNs because without them, I doubt that most
people would dare move to China for work, charity, politics or
event travel. If I were native resident, I wouldn’t dare
download a VPN. Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe I’m not.
not even sure in what way they look up to western culture, all
I know is that it’s complicated. They seem to simultaneously
put us on pedestal and resent us at the same time. Again, I am
painting very broad strokes here. Teenagers really enjoy English
pop and hip-hop music, and you can see that western fashion is
a big deal. Almost no one dresses in traditional Chinese clothes
anymore. However, you do see mandarin collar suits and women still
wear beautiful, colourful and elegant qipao dresses.
fun thing about China is all the horrible translations you see
everywhere. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as ‘Chinglish.’
My favourite sign, for a hair salon, read: Breaking the shackles
of the release with the texture and contour of your hair style
(whatever that means). The same place had a line on their window
that said: Hair texture reminiscent of the Romantic era. Again,
O: What is China’s attitude towards gays and transgendered
MARTIN: This is interesting, especially coming from The West,
because to our eyes, many Chinese men might seem somewhat effeminate
(I don’t mean that pejoratively, in fact, I would say that
I have a very strong feminine side too), especially the upper
class types. I found this true in England. Any country with a
strong, entrenched upper-class culture seems to produce more varied
types of male expression. Having said that, despite their long
finger nails (to show that they needn’t work with their
hands) and their soft spoken ways, most if not all are heterosexual.
gays and lesbians will opt to marry someone of the opposite sex
to keep up appearances and avoid shaming their families. The family
in China is the most important social institution. They say it
goes back to Confucianism, but I honestly don’t know enough
about it to say more than that.
is against homosexuality and has banned it from media (movies,
Internet, even online literature).
in China, the film Brokeback Mountain became the story
of two cousins who shared a tumultuous relationship (as opposed
to the story of two male lovers entrapped in phony marriages).
They must think English speaking people are really strange to
have nominated this movie for awards, because I’m sure that
it made zero sense to them watching the censored version in China.
O: Are marriages still pre-arranged? We hear anecdotally that
the pressure to pair off is even greater in China than the West,
that for the sake of appearances, there are social clubs where
you can rent a boy-friend or girl-friend by the hour or day or
MARTIN: In Shanghai there is a marriage market, where parents
or grandparents post stats in tabloids trying to marry off their
kids. I’m not sure that marriages are arranged, but there
is a huge pressure to marry before 25 or 27. After that age, you
risk being a ‘leftover woman,’ which is a highly stigmatized
status in China. Like in the West, romance/relationships are more
favourable for men.
think they share the same ridiculous standards for love that we
do. From what I saw, they are way more practical about it. There
are more men than women in China (a result of the one-child policy),
and as such, women can afford to be more choosy. The last thing
you want to be as a straight male is a ‘triple without.’--
a man without a nice home, a high paying job, or a fancy car.
Those men suffer the most when it comes to dating and marriage.
O: How prevalent is biking? Is the car making inroads? Are drinking
and driving tolerated?
MARTIN: I love love love the e-bike culture in China. They have
massive lanes dedicated to electronic bikes. Also, bicycle rental
systems for cities have arrived in a very big way (putting Montreal’s
BIXI to shame). On
the roads you see a lot of fun things, like an entire family of
four all crammed together onto one e-bike. I
often saw children or even large groups of workers sitting in
the wagon of a truck, speeding by on the highway.A
friend pointed out that in the west, we have a bias towards expecting
the worst (accidents, casualties, imminent death - everywhere),
whereas the Chinese appear to have a bias for the best (nothing
will happen, we’re safe, we won’t be killed.)
O: How bad is the pollution? And why seeing that there are significantly
fewer cars on the road?
Martin: The pollution is horrible. I read that the incinerators
in China aren’t built to the same standards as those in
the west, and so they emit 1/3 more pollution. This, coupled with
all of the cheap coal energy being used to rapidly develop the
country make things very . . . grey. Most
days, even when it’s sunny, the sky appears grey. Buildings
and trees across the road appear hazy. I
could feel the pollution in my lungs. It produced a faint burning
sensation. The worst places are in the North, in and around Beijing.
This has been well documented
in films and news articles. We
don’t know the effects that all of this pollution is having
on its people, and I highly doubt that the government will ever
publish any honest data on the matter. This
was a big reason why I felt the need to leave the country. When
it’s hot and humid, the pollution becomes oppressive. But
things are even worse in the winter. That’s when most people
feel the burning in their lungs. I
have a lot of pity for Chinese people living in the most polluted
cities. It’s not fair. It would be a beautiful country otherwise.
struck by the beauty of Anhui province, where there is little
to no perceptible pollution. One of the most majestic things I
have ever had the privilege of experiencing has been hiking the
glorious peaks of Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain). Also, being a
fan of the architecture there, the pagodas are equally stunning
(when they aren’t being obscured by pollution).
I left China as a worker, I would absolutely return as a visitor.
This time, equipped with a bit more knowledge of Mandarin.