Monday, October 25, 2010

Watershed 盛筵必散

The day passed, but I was only tired. The banquet finished, and all the people departed. I am no longer a teacher at my old centre, but from today a senior teacher in a new school. Emotionally, there is little feeling of loss yet. I was smiling whenever I told my students, often upset, about my imminent departure. Platitudes flowed and downcast faces were the gauntlet I walked, out the door and onto sidewalk. Will I miss them when I'm greeted without that adoration nor the same veneration in my new school?

The teacher-student bond is a special one; but only when you realise that a teacher is not a mere instructor. A teacher packages learning into every interaction: both academic and beyond. An instructor follows a plan and delivers "lessons". And I think I'm increasingly more able to be a teacher, but only perhaps because I can teach and model how one should be a student. Being a student is not a passive or receptive role, and to see it as any other is a mistake. To see being a teacher as being a solid agent of change is a mistake too: every case is unique and requires you to adapt to the new condition; the human condition is not one that can be taught with any one approach. And that the most important teaching often doesn't happen in the classroom, but rather when sitting down with the student to go deeper into their specific needs and issues.

As I exited I had a few slips of paper to give my contact to a few, a very few. Vic didn't, though he wanted to keep touch – I might contact him indirectly and I know that I can. Oscar wanted it, but I thought I'd give it to her later. Emil got it; he was a Filipino, a very serious student of high level and though sullen, possibly recently divorced, was most emotional when learning English. Rainbow would have given a kidney for it, seriously, and even said that I was the best teacher she'd ever had, seriously apparently ; but didn't get it. Tea got it but you could get more sincere than Tea. I found numerous ways to avoid giving any contact details to the highly emotional Ling; she'd be too much. Question Kevin got it despite being a nuisance at the best of times; he got it on virtue of his sheer desire to learn. And so for some it may be the last time they see me while others, virtue of my reasons or my whim, may keep contact.

And if I go back just over ten days, I can remember the question: "Would you like to end here on the 24th?" I answered in the affirmative, and realised later that would mean about 10 days before I leave, only 8 days of which were in the office, three of which were dominated by mentoring three teachers, one of which was swallowed by meetings; another was taken up with a referral event, and what was left were a load of lessons and a lot of garden-variety tiredness. At least my desk is clear.

Tomorrow though I will enter the door at my new centre, make myself a cup of coffee as a senior teacher, shake some hands and get down to preparing a Travel Club lesson.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

The sound and sight of silence 此地无银三百两

"The Japanese foreign minister begins to outline how they'd be negotiating with China over the sovereignty of a disputed island when-"
A stock standard Hong Kong advertisement appears suddenly on Chinese TV: It's a cantonese advertisement educating the populus about the Hong Kong education system, which is a silly choice since it is not a part of the life of virtually any of the mainland citizenry.
The normal service of the morning news program resumes: "And the bullet fired into the Chinese embassy in Japan is being investigated. It is believed to be a threat relating to the incident which inflamed the whole situation when the Japanese navy arrested a Chinese captain for sailing near the isla-"
Another stock standard advertisement appears. This one is a nicer one: A rather pretty, exuberant lady charges around picturesque Hong Kong scenes swearing her love upon the mountains and the sea, "We'll be together for a life, for an era!" Who is she declaring to? Her teeth! Great concept. The ad also ends prematurely as the ad is cut before we learn how to preserve the relationship with our teeth till death you shan't part when again normal service resumes again:
(A map showing the position of the island): "And on this map the island still carries its original Chinese name."
Such is the quality of a news broadcast on a channel broadcast from Hong Kong into Mainland China. It is one of my favourite channels with the best presenters and the best content. It is permitted freedom to broadcast what it likes but the feed into China is censored as above. The picture of the farewelling pine (on a finer day than the picture above) could be symbolic of the freedoms long since farewelled (actually in mainland China if I think of a longer time frame of history, I'm wondering if there were ever an era that had any absolute freedom of information and media preceding the current powers). I remember first hearing about this pine when I arrived in post-SARS China in 2003/2004 and bumped into some ex-pat teachers who were travelling. They recounted the stories of the pine when they were trying to find out anything about the worrying spread of the disease.
I'm not sure what that does to a local viewer psychologically. In my current events class the topic of the island does come up and most (as usual) will say what the powers that be would expect them to say. I watch it and think that if I were a chinese person I would suspect that "what isn't shown" on a channel unbound by ideology must be something rather devastating to that perspective, and probably doubt it.
Students here are fairly free with their views. You'll hear views against the government quite freely and complaints about certain policies. But on some issues, often points of patriotism or national pride, most people will toe the line. And perhaps there is no voices of skepticism heard.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to Navigate Chinese Streets

After my 11 months of Chinese life, I have learnt many of the basic skills of moving from place to place in China and wish to share them with my treasured readers.
1. Don't look where you're going.
Consideration will drive you mad here. In New Zealand, people have a luxury in considering giving space to others, yielding the footpath to others. But increase the number of people and the calculations of consideration suddenly become complicated. Chinese pedestrians generally don't pay attention into whom they're about to be walking. They'll have an absorbing conversation with their friends as they stroll not looking forward at all. It is like that sure-fire way of winning that classic car game, Chicken: unscrew your steering wheel and throw it out the window. If you show that you are not changing course (and can't), whoever is the most aware will be the one to change course. If you are not going to change course you won't need to. Both people and traffic moves like a river here, with swirling eddies, white water, torrents and all. Of course people will bump into others which brings us to the next guideline.
2. Don't worry, be apathetic now!
Zen parable: You're in a boat in a lake relaxing when suddenly you notice a person cruising a boat towards you causing you to jump up and take evasive action. How would you react to them? Now imagine the same situation except an unmanned boat. How would you react? The point of the parable is that often we react to unintentional and incidental accidents differently. It is true in NZ. If someone were walking down the footpath with an umbrella (though under shelter) moving it side to side, spiking people with the prongs, others would curse them. But if a tree moved side to side and spiked them with its branches they'd be less upset and get over it quickly. In China though, regardless if it is the most inconsiderate pedestrian behaviour or reckless driving, most others will treat it as completely incidental, an unmanned boat, and most certainly nothing to get upset about.
I wish it were about Zen enlightenment. It is actually about a very low expectation of how other people will consider others. Road rage is left for actual accidents and not near misses. There isn't enough energy for the latter.
3. Cars give way to people; people give way to bicycles; and bicycles give way to cars
Nuff said. People don't mind potentially ending their lives walking in front of cars but be careful of the bicycles. They move like lightning and they know they have the right of way. Get out! I've almost been nailed by bicycles twice. I was walking straight. It was them who gave me the dirty look.
4. There's always room...
Subways and buses actually can fit a million people, if they are willing. Elevators are the same. Don't worry if the elevator just beeped overweight and the doors aren't shutting and haven't shut for a minute: the people waiting will wait and at some stage the elevator will descend.
5. ...and once you're on, you shall stop.
You were at the front of the queue of about fifty and proudly got onto the subway carriage with only two people sneaking in front of you. Stop in the doorway. This is important as if you go too deeply into the carriage, you'll have some pushing to do to get off. I know what you're going to say: What about the forty-eight people behind you? Well, if they want on they'll either push you further in or move around you. Either way, that is their choice.
6. Speed and urgency is all about scarcity.
Give a random set of Guangzhou citizens the simple task of going from A to B on a footpath, they'd take all the time in the world in far from straight lines.  Give the same set a subway station to get from A to B and the whole thing becomes about competition. Get onto the train! Don't queue. Push! Get a seat! Suddenly old ladies put their heads down. Parents send their children ahead ducking and weaving to get ahead of people so they can follow.  According to a friend, this is drilled in by parents and grandparents from a young age. In the most populous country if you yield to one you yield to all. And then you come last.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I've got a feeling 秋意

Mid-Autumn Festival appropriately fell on the first real cool sway of the year. A passing typhoon (killing scores, villages inundated etc.) brought a refreshing breeze and a delightful temperature drop: people started to wear pants instead of shorts; men refrained from flaunting their uncovered paunches. The fringe clouds of the storm blotted out the moon for most of Guangdong for the festival evening - it is an evening when we are meant to enjoy viewing the moon with our friends and family. I enjoyed it with the thought that the summer, which I had feared before coming to China, had now mostly passed. And it is possible to miss the heat - it is 29 degrees now; will I freeze in the New Zealand spring? I'll soon finish my eleventh month in China.
Birthday season also passed and it was the first time I haven't done it with some form of party in many a blue moon. I'd have to go back to my birthday just after returning from Taiwan in 2000 to remember another year without a party. There is a sense of decadeness about it all. I went to mainland China for the first time in August/September 2000. As I may have retold on this blog, Guangzhou was the least impressive of all the places I visited then. I feel the changes both in me, the city and the country.
What can I remember? I can remember talking our way (my classmate and I) into many rather shady hotels; some were wonderfully priced decent places. I still remember the one in Yangshuo fondly. Shanghai was shabby. Xi'an felt lavish, though we were both with iffy bellies by then. Despite the niceness of the room, I remember there was a communal unwalled shower for the whole floor. I remember chatting to a fellow traveller there. Nice conversationalist. I remember the room on the top of Mount Tai and the wake-up to see the sun-rise. I remember the toilet and restaurant there too. (Toilets were quite memorable back then - not so much now.) Even though it was an unintended destination, I remember dusk at Liuzhou and the street where I ate sparrow rice porridge. I remember that it was my first sight of a still current phenomenon: men, often disabled in some way, writing long poems in chalk on the footpaths and streets recounting their lonely predicament, with a can for a coin or two. I remember men sitting on the side of the road selling peanuts (a scene still today) in Guangzhou. I feel rather privileged to have a degree of scale in the development of China. Of course, I have had association with others who were here even before the 80s, but they still provide a perspective and an understanding.
What of me? My ideals have changed somewhat, and my zeal for contrarianism has ebbed. At 20 I thought my views were extraordinary. Of course those views have been balanced by the conservatism of middling age. It may have taken ten years to cool off the heat of my feeling of being different and relax into being what I am, an ordinary person with a belief of commonality with everyone despite being quite different in some respects. Everyone is different: does it take this long to realise that one's own distance from others is a rather mundane fact of life? In the face of China the first time round, I wasn't shaken, but marginally stirred. I felt in my element even though, and this is a fact that hasn't changed.
So the wind has changed and I must plot a course for myself from this age to the next. I have to find whether this is the season for me to progress or hold. It should be interesting.