Thursday, September 27, 2007

University Life in China

As you might imagine, and as with pretty much every other facet of society, university life in China is quite different from that in a Western country. In some ways it feels more like a continuation of high school, and students are not nearly as independent and self-reliant as they are in a Western university. Ironically, the foreign teacher at this school who was least able to adapt and in fact quit a year early was the only one with a PhD and extensive university experience in America. In general the young and inexperienced teachers are successful in this environment. I've worked out a list below of some of the most obvious differences between university life at home and in China, in no particular order:

-Students are organized into classes by major, and given a class number and individual student numbers. They take all the same classes with these classmates, and have no control over their class schedule. At this school classes in the English department are around 35 students each. Some Chinese teachers call students by their numbers rather than their names.

-Changing one's major is much more complicated than in America, and involves getting permission from both departments and paying a fee. Choosing a major is also limited by your results on the college entrance exam and many of my English students would rather be studying something else. By the same token there are students with excellent English abilities in other departments who want to be English majors but can't because of exam scores.

-Each class has a class monitor, chosen by a class vote. The class monitor attends weekly meetings, passes on announcements to the class from the department, and is in charge of class activities. A student once asked me "how do you choose class monitors in America?" I explained that we don't have them, and in great confusion she asked "but who is in charge of the class?"

-Student dorm rooms typically have 5-8 students in rooms that would hold 2 in America. In this school the beds have thin straw mattresses and very little besides bunk-beds, the students' (few) possessions, and wash basins. The students do their laundry by hand, and typically wear the same two or three outfits. Males and females live in separate buildings and are not allowed to enter the opposite sex's dormitory buildings.

-Students have the same roommates for all 4 years, typically classmates that they also see in every class. It is extremely difficult to change dorm rooms and some students have falling outs with their roommates that affect the entire class atmosphere. However the drama is minimal compared to the nightmare you would get with American students in the same situation.

-Showers are in buildings separate from the dormitories and cost 3 yuan (less than 50 cents). For most students this is a significant amount and many students shower once a week.

-The school has implemented a new rule: it is mandatory for students to study in the campus classrooms from 7-9pm every night. Students who are absent and caught will be punished by having their exam grades lowered.

-Students must sign in around 7am every weekday morning, even if they don't have morning class. If they miss enough times they will be embarrassed by having their name read on the campus broadcast system. Students from families with money can and do bribe the people in charge of broadcasting and sleep in as they will.

-In English classes taught by Chinese teachers, it is typical for students to sit quietly and listen to the teacher lecture for the entire two hours, without the chance to speak a word of English. Both teachers and students (with some exceptions) will never speak English outside of class unless absolutely forced to (even with me many students want to use Chinese instead). In a three person English conversation with two Chinese and a foreigner, the two Chinese people will typically use Chinese when talking to each other. The result is that students can study English for 10 years and still be terrified of speaking to me in English. By contrast, even in high school I recall classmates using Spanish or French outside of class for the fun of it.

-Some textbooks are fine, but most leave something to be desired; there is a real textbook used at this school which has one word on the cover: "Listeing." I was able to change to a good series of reading books, but of the 40-odd stories in the first textbook I used, the most recent one was from 1971. Most were considerably older.

-Students (and Chinese people in general) are fond of performances. Campus entertainment usually takes the form of karaoke competitions and dance and music performances from students.

-With the dormitory situation, there is pretty much no privacy at all for student couples. Couples cuddle on benches or find a somewhat "secluded" spot in the grass, especially at night. I've seen what appears to be couples breaking up, simply standing off the side of a path because there is nowhere else for them to go.

-The dormitories are locked at 11:30pm, even on weekends. Two students once accompanied Andrew to a Christmas evening church service. It was so long that they missed their curfew and spent the entire night in an internet cafe, and were sick the next day.

-In order to have drinking water, students have big thermoses that they fill up in designated buildings that supply hot water. On the few occasions when the power has gone out in these buildings some students simply didn't drink anything because they didn't have money to buy water.

-Once per term each class has "duty week." This is a week when they don't go to class, instead cleaning up campus (sweeping, burning garbage) in their official school uniforms.

-Freshman have a week of military training, usually the first week of college, in which they wear uniforms, are drilled by soldiers, and do a lot of marching and shouting.

-My school has demolished the old library but not finished the new one. There is no library on campus at the moment.

-In general students don't get out as much as their Western counterparts. I once took some student friends to see Zhangye's famed "Great Buddah" statue, about a 25-minute walk away, and they were simply amazed I could get there so easily. They had never been that far away from campus before.

-There is a school broadcast system with speakers all over campus, which loudly plays news, the national anthem, and inspirational music. Broadcasts begin at 6am.

-Students stand up in unison to greet the teacher when he/she enters the room, and erase the blackboard for the teacher during breaks. Students rotate the duty of bringing the chalk and eraser to the classroom. When the student on duty forgets (which is often) I have no chalk or eraser, and someone then scrambles to get chalk from another classroom while others give me tissues to erase the board with. I've had to resort to cleaning the blackboard with a mop. I've tried hiding a cloth in the room for the times the students forget the eraser but it was soon stolen.

-Other than desks, small stools for students, the teacher's podium, the blackboard, and one electrical outlet, there is not so much as a garbage can in the classrooms. Occasionally the power is out and the outlet doesn't work, generally when I want to play music and really need power.

-Because of the crowded dorms and lack of study options, students often study outside. Because of the Chinese love of reciting out loud, this leads to the amusing sight of students reading books to trees.

-College students do drink, but not even approaching the amount that American students do. Drinking is not allowed in the dorms and due to money issues, curfews, and social norms students don't often go to bars. It is also almost exclusively males, as a Chinese female who drinks or smokes is not looked very highly upon. Working age males, however, drink much more than those in America, and it's an integral part of doing business in China. There are apparently some drugs available but I'm sure drug use is also much lower than in America (though apparently rising in the cities). Chinese drug laws are also much stiffer and include execution (incidentally China executes more people than all the other countries in the world combined).

-Pre-marital sex is considerably less common in China than the West. According to 21st Century (an English language newspaper for Chinese students), 15% of Chinese aged 18-21 have had pre-marital sex, and for the 21-24 group 39% have had pre-marital sex. The numbers are probably lower in a smaller, more conservative place like Zhangye. By contrast it claims that two-thirds of Americans under 18 have had sex. Because of living conditions it would be nearly impossible for a willing couple to have sex on campus in the first place. There is short-term off-campus housing available for students so those that are having sex often rent rooms for that purpose.

-The majority of college students have never had any kind of job before. In China a student's job is to study and they are not encouraged to earn their own money or pursue hobbies. Many of my students are getting their first part-time jobs tutoring younger students in English. Getting into a college is the result of a student's score on the college entrance exam; no other factors are considered and the pressure and preparation put into this exam are utterly unlike anything American high schoolers go through.

-It would unusual for a Chinese student to pay for college themselves. Generally they are completely funded by their parents.

-In almost every aspect of life Chinese students are less independent and self-reliant than Western students. Even with the means to do so I suspect none of my students would be willing to travel alone, even to a nearby city. Definitely not the girls. Students find it odd that I would even go out on the street by myself.

-Students seem to have little sense of note-taking, even in college. For the most part they scribble whatever I write on the board verbatim into the margins of their textbook and take no other notes. I questioned a student about her notebook and she told me "oh, I do have one, I just don't bring it to class because I'm afraid that I'll lose it."

-The student-teacher relationship is much more formal, with teacher as unquestioned master. A student was telling me a story about her middle school days. The teacher asked students to write down what they thought of her class. The student was naive enough to be honest and critical, and was asked to come to the teacher's home to be shouted at and criticized. It is also still common practice for teachers to hit students for misbehaving or performing poorly.

-Students at this school have an extremely limited knowledge of how to use computers. They have taken computer classes at the school, where they are taught a programming language that I've never heard of. I asked a student why it was useful and they said "oh we won't ever use it. But if we have this certificate it will help us get a job later." Many if not most students are unable to successfully use a search engine, send an e-mail, or get to a website when the address is already known, things which apparently are not taught in computer class. I once watched Andrew teach one of our students how to type in Chinese on a computer.

-A fairly high number of students wear glasses.

-No students own cars. Quite few teachers own cars; they are still for the wealthy. Only some students own bicycles.

-Especially in comparison to American students, Chinese students wake up early on weekends. A student once told me "sometimes we quarrel in my dormitory because I like to wake up early and do exercise with the window open on weekends, but my roommates like to sleep in late." "Late" turned out to be 8am; she preferred to get up at 6:30.

-The entire concept of education in China is different. Rote memorization is king and students are taught to copy what has come before; discussion, independent or creative thinking, unusual opinions, asking questions and certainly challenging the teacher are not encouraged. And it shows; on several occasions I've asked a student to help with some everyday task, such as sending mail to America or using a washing machine, and they were of little help because doing something unfamiliar was a bigger issue for them than the language barrier was for me.

-Foreign teachers are generally the only ones who place a heavy emphasis on the students speaking during English class; Chinese teachers sometimes deride this as "playing."

-Cheating is a much bigger problem than in the West, and is much more accepted. Students freely admit to cheating when asked. I've heard a story about a Chinese professor telling university students to "just copy from your sources. I don't want to have to correct all your English mistakes." I've had students copy straight from their textbooks (the difference is obvious) during class when all I asked them to do was do some free writing about what was on their mind, and not for a grade.

If asked to compare different aspects of American and Chinese culture, I can generally find positives and negatives of both. I didn't mean this list to be a list of complaints, but it's true that education is the one area where I can see no advantages to the Chinese way. Two of my students were shocked to come across a ranking of universities worldwide that listed Qinghua University (the best in China, which students make untold sacrifices to try to get into) at something like #180, and whispered in Chinese about how it was just a Western bias against China. Some of the problems lie with the difficulties of overpopulation (middle school classrooms typically have 60 or 70 students) and of a developing country, but some come from attitudes and ways of thinking that for the sake of Chinese students I hope eventually change. Also, I'm speaking from personal experience and not all these things would be true in all universities in China, especially if the problem is money (this is a third-tier university in one of China's poorest provinces after all). As a whole students here are not satisfied with their educational experience, and I find they usually agree with me when the conversation turns to criticizing education in China. However, I would also be interested in working in a better school in a wealthier city as a means of comparison.

When speaking Chinese with people in town, I am frequently asked if I'm studying abroad here. This first of all makes me smile, as I don't think Zhangye would be high on the list of destinations for a study abroad candidate. But it also makes me imagine life here on the other end of the classroom. I think I'll stick with being a foreign teacher.

(on a side note, for an overall excellent China read that partly deals with being an American studying abroad in China, in the early 80's no less, check out Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret)

Trapped in the Classroom

I got trapped inside a classroom this week.

Currently all of my classes are taught in the same classroom. Because it has a TV inside it is securely locked with a security door that I have the key to. Inside the security door there is also an old wooden door which is now broken and has no handle, and has remained this way for weeks. On Monday this wooden door was closed and utterly impossible to open, and we had to find another classroom. Then, during my Tuesday lesson, a not particularly observant student tightly closed this door while I was speaking.

Sure enough, when it was time to end class and leave, the door could not be opened. Without the handle the latch was not going anywhere, and the class watched on with amusement as I struggled with the door. Students tried the door but it was no more willing to move than Excalibur from the stone. I asked if anyone had a cell phone and the class monitor was quickly on the job. The other students took the chance to take pictures of me with their camera phones (I'm teaching freshman who for the most part have never spoken to a foreigner before this month). Though we were on the first floor we couldn't escape through the windows, as they all had bars. At least no one will steal the TV. After the monitor made a phone call he started shouting out the window at passing students to get help, and trying to communicate with people in the hall by shouting at the small (barred) opening near the ceiling. The students repeatedly asked me if I had a key (after quickly consulting with each about how to say "key" in English); no, I did not have a key to the wooden door, and this was clearly not the problem when there was no handle and nothing to put a key into.

It also began to hail heavily, a very rare event in these parts and an appropriately dramatic touch. Finally a teacher came by to bang on the door really hard, to no avail. She also wanted to know why I didn't have a key. Eventually something she did worked and the door opened, allowing us to leave after waiting around like idiots for 10 minutes after class. I went straight to the English department to inform them about the door. I was assured that because the door has no handle it can't lock and there is no problem. After making clear that I had definitely just gotten stuck in the classroom with 35 students they said they were calling a repairman to take care of it. The door has still not been fixed.

Never a dull moment.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sichuan Travels

Finishing off my summer travels (in my usual timely fashion), I'll very briefly write about the end of the summer holiday when me and Danielle traveled through Sichuan on the way back to Gansu. The first destination was Zigong, which I chanced upon an interesting description of (at It was larger and more modern than what I had imagined, but it was a likable city with some noteworthy ancient buildings and a fun dinosaur museum. At the Wangye Temple I had my first and so far only proper teahouse experience, which was quite enjoyable but does not necessarily make for a exciting story.

Next we set up base in Chengdu and made a day trip to Leshan, a city renowned for having the largest Buddha statue in the world. It was worth braving the crowds to see the Buddha and the rest of the grounds were both attractive and practically deserted.

Chengdu was the last stop before returning to Zhangye. Three years ago I doubt I had even heard of Chengdu, but it is among the largest cities in China with a population of 11 million. Chengdu has all the hallmarks of modernity one would expect in such a large city, our chief interests being pizza and Western-owned bars with great music. Many large Chinese cities rub me the wrong way but I would include Chengdu along with Shanghai and Xi'an in the short list of big Chinese cities I could live in.

One of my favorite moments in Chengdu was in the square in the evening, with the giant Mao statue paternally watching over us. The square is undergoing major renovation including a stop on the city's upcoming subway system, and is now outfitted with a fountain system that by Danielle's account wasn't there last year. It's a flashy fountain with jets of water that dance and shift unexpectedly, but the real fun of it was watching the locals' immense joy over the fountain. Children and college students (who have their childish streaks anyway) got the greatest kick out of running up to the fountain and running away when the water shifted and sprayed them, with amused adults watching on. I'm not sure Americans could muster quite so much enthusiasm over a fountain, and it's often for the simplest of reasons that I love being around the Chinese.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jones Family in China

At the beginning of my summer holiday, my father and 22-year old brother Erik came to China for a visit, a trip I had long anticipated. It was an eventful and rather successful two weeks, but I'm going to keep the write-up relatively short, especially since I write this blog partly for my family and half of them were there.

The start of the trip was near disaster--as I waited for the two of them to arrive in the Lanzhou airport, wondering why their flights wasn't appearing on the arrival board, I realized for the first time that the copy of the ticket I had said "22 Jun" instead of "22 Jul," nearly impossible to notice from the way the ticket was printed. My plan of buying their tickets from Beijing to Lanzhou really early had backfired, with the travel agent selling me tickets for the wrong month. To my immense relief they arrived on a slightly later flight; after some confusion in Beijing they were able to get same-day tickets on the same airline for cheap.

The first day was spent in Zhangye, where they were able to meet a number of my friends and see in person where I'm teaching and why I like it so much (the food by itself is reason enough). Their first meal was at China Fire, where owner and friend He Le cooked up some fish. I don't like fish in China because of the tiny, deadly bones, which combined with the spicyness make the dish at best annoying to eat and at worst lethal. He Le placated me by saying "oh, this fish has no bones." When it arrived with every bone intact, I brought this to his attention, to which he replied "oh, well it has far fewer bones that other fish." Chinese-style communication. In the top picture they are standing with my friend Little Ma's father, who is a painter and quite generously gave my dad and Erik a painting each as gifts.

After Zhangye we visited Jiuquan, a city similar in size to Zhangye where we were invited to visit the homes of my friends Joy (her Chinese name is 徐莉) and Beth (高彩霞). Joy and her uncle can be seen with my dad and brother in the second pictures above. During this stay, and throughout the trip, my friends insisted on calling my dad "Uncle" in English because using his first name would be rude. There something endearing about my non-English speaking friend Beth catching my dad's attention with "uncle" and leading him around. We were guests in one of Joy's English classes, a summer class she organized completely on her own by going door to door and renting a classroom. It took her a lot of work to convince the wary, mostly poor locals that their children would benefit from extra English class, and she made enough money for herself to pay off a decent amount of tuition she still owed the school. Knowing her situation I had insisted she borrow money from me, but all she ever took in the end was 10 yuan (about $1.20) to buy a train ticket at the end of last semester when she had quite literally run out of money. Nowadays Chinese people are often accused of excessive greed and concern for money, and I'm sure that sometimes it's true, but you don't have to look far to disprove most stereotypes.

After Joy's class we rode to her Uncle's house in a cart, powered by her cousin on a bicycle. I knew this was going to be serious "country living" and was looking forward to the stay, as well as the reaction of my dad and brother. Overall they enjoyed it, despite the perils of using the toilet: it was nothing more than a pit in back of the house, and to even reach it one had to run the gauntlet of two blood-thirsty dogs. At the end of its chain, the second and larger of the two was no more than a foot or so from the toilet, all the while barking and trying to break free and tear your face apart. Add to this a curious cow, whose large head comfortably fit over the fence and into the bathroom "stall" to see what you were up to, and the fact that a family member insisted on chaperoning any guest to the toilet at a close distance, and you have your ideal Chinese bathroom experience to welcome newly arrived foreigners. The bathrooms in general (Western, sit-down toilets are quite rare outside of classier hotels and homes) were a constant source of shock/amusement/photo opportunities for my dad and brother throughout the trip.

After Jiuquan it was back to Lanzhou for a flight and an unexpected hospital visit. My parents give to a charity called Smile Train which fixes cleft palates in poor children around the world, and my dad (who is a doctor) had a visit organized for us at the participating hospital in Lanzhou. We were met at the train station by head surgeon Dr. Lu and an attractive medical student with the English name Sara who would act as translator. They had obviously been confused by the e-mail I sent to Dr. Lu, as Sara was eagerly holding a sign that said "Welcome Dr. Dan." My dad and Erik were surprised and amused at the royal treatment we received, especially the banquet lunch with some of the higher-ranking hospital staff that ended in drinking games (one hopes they didn't have surgery in the afternoon). During the hospital tour my dad started to take a picture of a dental hygienist working on someone's teeth, but they made him wait while she awkwardly put on her mouth guard and cap. A doctor beside me said quietly to Sara "we wouldn't want the foreigners to think that..." but she stopped him and said "he can understand Chinese" while motioning to me. I gave a knowing smile.

Once we left Gansu, the trip became significantly more touristy and less unique, so I don't feel the need to go into detail, as plenty of travel writing exists about these places. We spent three days in Yangshuo, followed by shorter stays in Hangzhou, Xitang, and Beijing, including a day trip to the Great Wall. We did a four-hour walk on the Great Wall, starting at Jinshanling (金山岭) and ending at Simatai (司马台), a good choice that escapes the hordes of tourists that apparently descend on spots like Badaling that are close to Beijing. The least known of the places we visited was definitely Xitang (西塘), a fairly quiet little water town in Zhejiang province that was a nice change of pace from the large, modern Hangzhou. The pictures below are from the area outside of Yangshuo as well as the Great Wall.

Finally, I'll include a brief excerpt from the journal my father wrote about trip (which totals over 20 pages). I enjoyed seeing their surprise at all the little cultural differences I'm now used to (though still amused by), which have been put down in writing by my dad:

General Observations About The Chinese


They love to cook and love to eat and most of their life centers around food.
Their families are very close and they all respect one another including the kids.
They have very little in the way of possessions and are much happier then most of us.
They enjoy “taking a rest” after lunch and can stay up real late at night.
They love to do everything and share everything (including experiences) in groups.
They have tremendous pride in their locality and also in their nation as a whole.
They love to have visitors, especially foreign ones, and are incredibly hospitable.
They love to have their picture taken.
They are getting much taller.
They generally seem to be where we were at in the 1940-50s
They do not know how to form lines and wait their turn.
They never touch their food with their hands.
They squat rather than sit on the ground (like "animals & wild people").


Men love to play drinking games with each other using beer in shot glasses.
Men chain smoke
Men drive crazily.
Men sometimes are seen wearing their shirt with its bottom rolled up exposing their belly.


Women do not drink alcohol.
Women do not smoke.
Women ride on the back of bikes and motorcycles in a side-saddle manner.
Women respect themselves and their men.
Women are great cooks.
Women do all the cleaning and serving.
Women find lighter skin to be more attractive and some cover up completely outdoors.

Items that could be used in making squares for travel bingo in China:

girl riding side-saddle on back of bicycle
kid standing up between parents on motorcycle (no helmet)
man with shirt rolled up over belly
“welding mask” on woman to block the sun
arm cuffs on woman to block the sun
a women with an umbrella to block the sun
public urination
hacking up and spitting out a “lugie”
a cow or water buffalo being walked along the roadside
people playing badminton on the side of the road with no net
“happy pants” on a baby boy
hawker shouting “hello, water”
a rickshaw
a motorcycle/cart hybrid
a bicycle extremely overloaded
a cart or truck extremely overloaded
poor “Chinglish” on a sign
a bathroom with a Western toilet
a person squatting
men playing drinking games
people doing Tai Chi
a car passing a car that is passing another car

Bonus squares (automatic wins):

any Chinese forming a line
a car stopping for a pedestrian
a bus that is not packed
a bathroom with toilet paper
a motorcyclist wearing a helmet
a Chinese man wearing a green hat (means his wife is cheating on him)