Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 16, No. 6, 2017
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transit and transitions



Andrew 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.


A & 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?

ANDREW 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.

Wealthy 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.

Considering 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 Internet).

Onto 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.

They 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.

As a 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.

Also, 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.

A & 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?

ANDREW 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.

I’m 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.

Another 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, whatever.

A & O: What is China’s attitude towards gays and transgendered people?

ANDREW 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.

Many 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.

The Party is against homosexuality and has banned it from media (movies, Internet, even online literature).

Fun fact: 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.

A & 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 week.

ANDREW 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.

I don’t 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.

A & O: How prevalent is biking? Is the car making inroads? Are drinking and driving tolerated?

ANDREW 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.)

A & O: How bad is the pollution? And why seeing that there are significantly fewer cars on the road?

Andrew 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.

I was 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).

Although I left China as a worker, I would absolutely return as a visitor. This time, equipped with a bit more knowledge of Mandarin.

 Photos©Andrew Martin



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