Saturday Night, November 8, 2008
Hello there, again!
Lucky for my 3 loyal readers that I have a free weekend and a penchant for procrastination :-)
This week was fairly uneventful. Nothing big to report. I didn't teach Wednesday, Thursday or Friday because my school was having exams, so I had a little free time, which was nice. It helped me catch up on the sleep I missed during that crazy Quito/Machu Picchu/Three-day-plane-flight-followed-by-jet-lag period.
I went to something called English Corner on Thursday night. It's a weekly gathering of Chinese teens, 20-somethings and adults who want to practice their English, so finding an American (or Australian or Canadian or Englishman etc…) to talk to is like striking gold for attendees. The only problem is that there are some people I would rather not strike me, but by the time I figured out which people should be avoided it was too late, as you'll hear in a moment.
There were probably 250 people, although it was dark and difficult to really get a good estimate. Most of them are probably very nice and very interesting. A good number want to ask about colleges in the U.S. either out of curiosity or because they want to take a year abroad. One girl specified that she wanted to go to a famous University. Having just gone through the college application process myself, I tried to explain about the value of attending a school that's a "good fit" as opposed to one with a good name brand. She asked about transferring universities (difficult but not impossible, I told her) and about changing majors (not really that difficult at all). In China, you can't really change majors which is too bad because it seems that no one likes the one they've picked. Granted, I've only had the "do you like your major?" conversation with about 4 people, but they were four separate conversations at different times with students at different universities and no one was happy with their choice. The general complaint seemed to be that their major was too difficult, although I have a feeling the underlying issue is that no one had a major that they found interesting enough to make the work go quickly. In the U.S. most of us are lucky enough to get to choose a major because we find it interesting, hence the wealth of "impractical" majors like English (…and theatre…). Students with impractical majors may face the occasional "what are you going to do with that?" but those majors remain popular, nonetheless. I'm not sure how majors are chosen in China, but I would guess that people's parents have a lot of say and that pragmatism reigns supreme. The girl I spoke to at English corner was a business administration major, or something to that effect, and she told me she really disliked math. She had actually been an Arts student in high school (when students enter high school they are either placed on the math/science track or the arts track which is more humanities based). Too bad her major was math based. She asked what my major would be and when I told her I intended to double major in theatre and international relations she perked up. Did I think it was important to be interested in my major? …Well, yes. I told her that I thought I would be much happier if I was interested in my major since I would be spending the rest of university and probably the rest of my life studying or working in that field. She told me that international relations was where her real interest lay. I suggested that there might be a way to work in international business, that she should be creative with her career since just switching her major seemed out of the question, but it appeared that her plan was to go to the U.S. and change over there. All I can say is that that's a long way to go to change a major.
That short conversation reminded me again how thankful I am for the American system of education, with it's emphasis on a broad range of subjects. I spent a few weeks at Oxford during the summer after ninth grade and I fell in love with the city, but even then I knew I would never apply to university there. The British system, in which you choose a major before you even arrive on campus and study basically only that subject for the rest of your time, is just not for me. The Chinese system is not for me either. I like flexibility. I like being able to double major in two subjects that seem wholly unrelated and not entirely practical. I like being able to take a class in philosophy or linguistics or the literature and culture of Southwestern Pakistan just because it sounds interesting. I like it a lot, and I feel very lucky to have that opportunity.
Most of my time at English Corner, however, was spent being lecture by one of those miners you wish had struck gold with someone else. What I meant to say is that I was lectured by a 30ish year old man with one of those protective face masks around his next for a good 45 minutes about food security in China. Any time anyone else in the circle that had formed around me changed the subject (usually to Barack Obama) he would inevitably interrupt and bring the conversation back to food security. Ocassionally he would branch out to food security in the U.S. or even "ecology farming" (which is NOT organic farming and which I still do not really understand). I know very little about food security in the U.S. I know we have the FDA and generally I assume my food is safe. Maybe I should know more about where what I eat comes from. That is a valid point and I'm pretty sure we'll be discussing that when we study sustainable agriculture in India. We'll be reading parts of The Omnivore's Dilemma which I know at least touches on that because I had bits of it read to me by a friend on an airplane last year. However, as valid as that point may have been, I'm not sure that was the point he was trying to make. I have no idea, actually, what point he was trying to make and during that 45 minutes I learned very little about food security anywhere. All I remember is that people worry about it and that people in Kunming really like fresh vegetables and they go to the market every morning to buy them so markets are sold out by noon. Good to know. I finally escaped by telling him I had to go find my friends. (That was actually true because when I finally came up from my underwater lair of food security fears and looked around, all the other TBBers that had been near me were gone. I had an apprehensive minute during which I thought I had been left and tried to mentally walk the route home, but luckily when I stood on a nearby rock to get a better view in the crush of people I saw that Noah and David were still there…thank goodness for tall people, particularly in China. The blonde and the baseball cap didn't hurt either. And so I made it home without incident.)
As I think I mentioned before, we've been reading Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (or POTO, which slips more easily off the tongue). It's dense and I occasionally yearn for a dictionary, but it's very interesting. The big question (at least for me) that came out of our discussion Friday was this: Can one be an effective agent of change without being a martyr? Freire's theory is (I'm trying to summarize here…) that the Oppressors (which would include me because I wouldn't consider myself Oppressed and there is no Door #3) are dehumanizing both the Oppressed and themselves through their oppression, but that any change to the system must come from the Oppressed. An Oppressor can basically defect and be in solidarity with the Oppressed if he or she becomes convinced of the need to liberate the Oppressed (thereby making both the Oppressed and their Oppressors "more fully human" – a term he has yet to clarify and which I find annoyingly vague and hand-wavey), but it seems to be impossible, at least as I'm reading it, to be in solidarity with the Oppressed without cutting oneself off from Oppressor society. It's interesting to think about this in the context of Three Cups of Tea and also in the context of international development or even just community service. Is it possible to help people without being "one of them?" If I want to help the poor do I have to become poor, leaving the trappings of Oppressor society behind me? If I'm unwilling to do that, is there any way I can still help?
I hope I haven't butchered Freire's ideas too terribly in that summary. I'm interested to see what he says in the rest of his book, but I have a feeling it won't answer those questions for me. I think we'll be talking about those questions for a long time…the rest of this year, yes, but even beyond that. Thinking Beyond Borders asks on its website: What does it mean to be a proactive agent of change? No one I know thinks they have the definitive answer to that question. There may not be a definitive answer. But I know a lot of people who are asking and thinking and talking about it. Now maybe you are too :-)
On a lighter note, life with my Chinese homestay family is getting better. I think it's a combination of changing expectations (both on my part and on the part of my homestay parents, whom, after their talk with Charles, have been slightly less overprotective…it's interesting to have gone from effectively being an adult old enough to have two children in Bua to a child who should be studying and living at home with her parents here in Kunming…many of the TBBer's host siblings are in their early to mid twenties, after all) as well as very slight but very useful improvements in my Chinese, their English and my miming skills. I dare you to challenge me in Charades after this year. I dare you.
And, in case you thought China was sounding like all work and no play (we do have Chinese homework, POTO reading, journaling, lesson planning and media projects to work on after all) I thought you might like to know that I've had a chance to watch some of the (bootleg…shhh don't tell!) DVDs I bought last weekend. Last Sunday night I watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, last night I watched Notorious with Isabel (so, SO good…I just love Ingrid Bergman…and Claude Raines…and Cary Grant…) and I'm in the middle of watching Bridge on the River Kwai (which I did not realize was quite as long as it is and may not have time to finish before I turn this computer over to Katie C. in about an hour…bootleg DVD's aren't always entirely accurate on their package movie length estimates, apparently…I should have known better seeing as it's directed by David Lean who also brought us such epics as Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago). I'd just like to point out that I'm risking not getting to finish Bridge on the River Kwai so that I could type up this blog post. Then again, I own it, so I can finish it whenever I can next manage to snag a laptop.
However, the exciting moment of the day for me (besides getting to chat with the 'rents and Annie, I mean…maybe…) was finding a pair of jeans that pretty nearly fits and has minimal writing, fading, stitching or sequins. I didn't bring jeans on the trip and I have regretted that since we've been in a city and not a rural area. REI pants just don't measure up to the fashion standards of Kunming…or of normal teenagers…but people in China are small and a lot of the jeans are very flashily decorated so I thought a good pair would be pretty hard to come by. I looked a little last week, but today I met with success. Hooray!
I think I'll leave you on that very uplifting note. I know it just made your day :-P
I would sign off in Chinese if I knew how,