The Final Final

Well, finals have come and gone, and I have just finished a very tedious week grading over 120 essays (essays were 1/3 of the final).  My friends back home who are teachers have already laughed at me for assigning an essay as a part of the final; and rightfully claim that this workload is my own fault, and that this is why God created Scan-Tron machines.  Feeling the need to be defensive, I maintain that if you don’t demand that your students perform to a higher level they will never do so voluntarily.  So, yes, I made more work for myself, but at the same time I believe my students may have benefited just a little bit more.  (At least, that’s what I keep telling myself!)

So imagine my surprise when, on the day of the final, I find myself administering a test for twice as many students as I remember having.  (I even ran out of test papers in two of my classes!)  What happened, of course, is that only about half of my students ever showed up for any normal class, and I had forgotten that my class roster started with over 30 students per class.  I guess word got around that my final would be worth 50% of their grade.  

How did they do?  The truth is I don’t know.  Numerically only about 1/3 of my students got above the 70% mark, but not knowing the school’s standards or how things are usually done, and I was completely unsure on how to assign grades to the “inbetween” students – that is, the ones who tried very, very hard yet could not demonstrate even a mild competence in the subject matter.  I ended up giving the raw grade sheet and final scores to the school’s administrators, and said “Here’s how my students did.  I need your help deciding what is an ‘A’, what is a ‘B’, etc.”  And that was the last I heard from anyone.  I haven’t received any hate mail or death threats from anyone, so perhaps that wasn’t a bad way to handle it.  If I were a professional educator I’m sure I would have handled things differently.  

Meet the Students 

As part of the final exam, I had the students write a 150-word essay on the following topic: 

Some students believe that the only thing they should do in school is study so that they can pass a certain test. Others feel that the general skills of thinking, understanding, philosophy, and discussion, while not of immediate benefit, are far more useful in the real world once they graduate.

Explain which opinion you agree with and why you feel that way.  MAKE SURE TO EXPLAIN THE OPPOSITE POINT OF VIEW AS WELL in your essay.

Below is the essay by Wei Ning (“Apple”), who is the first of my students to lash out in response to an exam question.

In fact, I very much agreed with that learning in school in order to get more useful skills which was useful for my future when I was a child, but 14-years-learning life in China making me have to believe that study in school only for passing the exam.

For instance, I am a girl who like get more new information very much, but what the school can give me is only the garbage. As everyone knows, the curriculum of Chinese math is one of the most difficult in the world, but in the real world, we never use so complex formula to resolve thing, it is useless! We are so tired that in order to only memorize the junk knowledge. Before the exam we have to memorize many information which we don’t’ know the meaning to prepare the exam, do you think it is useful?  It so terrible that we are busy in memorize whole day, but we no choice as the Chinese people pay attention to diploma more than techniques.

For these bad reason I have to decision study abroad as I never give my idea which making when I was a child.

(Please pardon me so agitated, but please believe me we I write is real).

China’s Hawaii

The students were not the only ones in need of a break once finals were over!  I wanted to do nothing for awhile, and get away from the cold at the same time.  (To be fair, Beijing wasn’t as cold as I was expecting – it has only snowed about three times so far, and the temperature got down to about -3 degrees C.)  So although my need to escape from the cold was somewhat tempered (no pun intended), I still heeded the advice I had heard from so many: One of the best places to vacation in is the island of Hainan, in the south of China, whose climate is almost identical to that of Hawaii.  (In fact, the city I stayed in, named Sanya, literally translates to “China’s Hawaii”.)  

While every bit as beautiful and commercial as Maui, Sanya was also very touristy — and I mean an order of magnitude worse than what normally passes for ‘touristy’.  Taxi drivers earn their real income via kickbacks for steering tourists (Chinese, Russians, and Westerners alike) to a particular restaurant or hotel.  Shop owners have two different sets of prices depending on where you’re from, and bargaining down is a lot harder here (a few even tried to bribe my local guide in the middle of bargaining!)  And shop owners and trinket sellers alike are about 10 times more aggressive (bordering on hostile) than those outside the Great Wall, and do not let up.  Everyone I spoke to felt like a victim, no matter how much effort was made not to get caught up in the machinery.  After awhile it stops being a vacation and the fact that everyone, everywhere is constantly trying to rip you off starts to grind away at your peace of mind.  This is relaxation?

A greeter in front of Hainan Airlines office.  Interestingly, she’s wearing traditional Mongolian clothing – from the opposite end of China!

A sample of the high-end resort hotels on the beach resort of Sanya.  Severe overbuilding caused an investment crash that every visitor can feel.  On the other hand, this is Hawaii at 1/100th the price!

Three Canadians, three Americans, and Peter, our guide for the day.  Starting from upper left: Ivan Tentchoff, Morgan and Trey Henry, Ken Burkholder, me, Peter, and Evi Blueth.  Also pictured is my new hat which can only be worn in warm climates.

The island of Hainan Dao has an interesting history.  Below is a quote from the Lonely Planet guide to China:

Historically, Hainan was a backwater of the Chinese empire, a miserable place of exile and poverty.  When Li Deyu, a prime minister of the Tang dynasty, was exiled to Hainan he dubbed it ‘the gate of hell’.  According to historical records, only 18 tourists came to Hainan of their own volition during the entire Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties (almost 700 years)!  That’s about the rate per second during winter nowadays.

My, how times change!  

But Sanya has only been a tourist destination for less than 20 years; there was at one time a huge investment boom for the tourist industry that subsequently went bust; and the population that’s left are literally clamoring for any and all tourist dollars.  I was personally surprised at the idea of a beach resort in China, since most Chinese cherish light-colored skin and abhor suntans.  But no matter…

This being the winter season, there was no shortage of Western English teachers who also chose to vacate (hey, that’s a proper use of the word!) at the southernmost tip of China.  Several of us banded together and we made several day trips around the island, trying to avoid the tourist traps (we didn’t always succeed) and see as much of the countryside as we could.  

Pictures from these outings can be seen in Chapter 19.

Interestingly, all of these other English teachers had similar stories to tell about how they were thrown into a class with no materials and no guidance regarding what the students are expected to learn.  Hmmm… an opportunity to start a new company!  (Oh yeah, we’re already pursuing that path… I’ll tell you how that’s going after Spring Festival is over.  There have been problems…)

The Edge of the Sky

“It’ll cost you about 60 RMB for admission”, said the driver of the motorcycle with the side-seats attached, when we asked about getting to the “Edge of the Sky” national park and tourist trap.  “But if you go through me, I’ll get you in for 30 each, including the ride there.”

Ahh, the Edge of the Sky.  Also called “The Corner of the Sea”.  Without question the 2nd-most touristy place I’ve visited here, and that also includes the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.  The site takes its name from the traditional belief that China is literally, itself, the entire civilized world and that the country’s most southern shore marks the end of the world.  The place was packed, overpriced trinkets were everywhere, and the way out was paved by more impulse-buying opportunities than the checkout line at Fry’s Electronics.  

But the way in was certainly memorable.  We took the motorcycle driver up on his offer, and within 5 minutes he had recruited two similar vehicles to take all six of us to the rear of the property.  A security guard who protects the perimeter had torn a hole in the fence and he helped us all crawl through it.  The guard got some money, the motorcycle driver got some money, and we got in for less money.  A win-win!

In the event you were wondering, the first-most touristy place we visited was the Maoan Miao Nationality Village, a cultural preservation site which offers travelers a unique view on the customs and culture of the indigenous Miao people.  Although the faux village looked charming and the natives beautiful and colorfully dressed, tourists were herded from one place to another and offered no end of opportunity for immersion, with no end of verbal monetary demands afterwards.  Stop #1 looked like a banquet table, and each tourist was ornamented with a colorful hat and vest before they were seated.  The men were then adorned by one of the local women, and were told that for 41 RMB (half the price of admission) I could take part in a mock wedding ceremony.  After leaving there still a bachelor, I was hounded by scenes designed from the ground up to be photographed, with no end of requests for compensation every time they heard my digital camera make no noise whatsoever.

Everyone (including this tourist) just had to have their picture taken by the carved-in-stone demarcation point of the Earth’s edge.

One of the three motorcycle riders that made the deal with us.  Everyone’s an entrepreneur.

Technically, I didn’t take her picture, so I didn’t feel bad about saying “no”.  But the weaving is wonderful.

A Miao cast member prepares to greet tourists

Spring Festival

The Chinese New year, also called “Spring Festival”, is the single most important holiday in this massive country, and is only a few days away as I write this.  (I can tell it’s a few days away because there are decorations everywhere and VERY LOUD fireworks going off locally around the clock and into the wee hours of the morning.  I’m in a ! and ^%#@* war zone!)  I am told that the festival is a spectacular sight as well, and of course you will read, see, hear, smell (okay, maybe not smell) all about it days after I experience it.  Hopefully I won’t be locked in a dormitory this time as the week-long festivities commence.

Until next time…

“Yours Truly, Gary Friedman”

Jan. 20th, 2004