I’m now entering my second week of teaching (it seems longer!), and I’m beginning to get into the swing of things. My students know me by name, and give an enthusiastic “Hello!” in the hallways. I am starting to assign harder homework and the vast majority of them sincerely try to do it all. But I am amazed by all the “disconnects”.

The first disconnect is that their English textbooks seem to be light years ahead of their ability to understand them.  At the IT college each student must plow through a large stack of technical texts – HTML, Advanced topics in Java programming, selected readings, Business management and negotiating, and structured programming.  Each is pretty thick (despite how they appear in the photo below) and written in that famous academic style which is designed to impress the author’s peers rather than to convey concepts, generate enthusiasm, or enlighten. I thumb through these texts and I become overwhelmed at just how much there is to learn (and I have the double advantage of already knowing this stuff AND speaking the book’s native language!)

The second disconnect came out in a reading assignment I gave. Figuring that their reading skills must be far more advanced than their speaking or writing skills, I gave a short reading assignment for homework – a 5-page article by George Orwell (of 1984 fame) called “Shooting the Elephant”, which told about his years as a British colonial police officer in Burma. 

In it he described his contempt for British imperialism and for the Burmese people whose hatred for him was reciprocated. (Things don’t change, do they? 🙂 )  The story had him torn between shooting a wayward elephant because of the locals’ demand for revenge and entertainment, and not shooting because the elephant’s rampage was over and it was no longer a threat. It had all the elements of a good short story – backdrop, a simple plot, a meta-plot, insight, and a plethora of irony.


A young girl waves from a departing train. 

DCF 1.0

So many technical books written in difficult-to-comprehend academic English.  How in the world do they absorb all these complex topics presented in such an unclear way in a foreign language?

We discussed the story in class. Forget about shades of meaning and symbolism – all but one of the students completely missed the simple plot. I would ask questions like “And what happened next?” Instantly everyone would break out their electronic English-Chinese translating dictionaries, and scan their texts for a clue. None of them understood the dilemma that the author was in; none of them realized that after he shot the elephant the elephant did not die.

None of them understood that the elephant was shot several times, in several different places, and just sat there in extreme pain which Orwell described in agonizing detail. (It’s a very good article; recommended reading from Gary.)  Lets you think they simply didn’t do their homework (as you might expect from most American students), let me assure you that each page of the story from this brand new book of selected readings was littered with Chinese characters – usually translating insanely difficult words. 

In this school the kids usually study until late in the evening.  In this school the students are told that they must go beyond what the teacher asks of them and take on additional challenges lest they not get the best job later on.  In this school the pressure to achieve is high.

So I still haven’t figured out how they do it. One theory is that with technical texts you can safely spit back answers to pass things like MCSE certification exams. Another is that they teach for the test here, which requires a completely different set of skills than reading and understanding literature.  I’m sure I’ll get greater insights as the semester wears on.


Sidewalk games to pass the time are a common sight here. 

“Communism? What’s that?”

Once I was doing an interactive Q and A about what life was like 20 years ago (helps everyone to identify and practice past-tense verbs). One of the questions was “True or false – there were more communist countries 20 years ago.” All I got were quizzical looks, followed immediately by the scurrying to break out the electronic translators. “You know, like the former Soviet Union, Cuba, and North Korea” “Oh, you mean independent!” was the instant response. Go figure. Then I heard all about how Chairman Mao, blessed be he, was the one to think of the change to a market economy, and how everything is different since the government’s decision to “slowly” migrate toward capitalism.

Slowly isn’t the word; it’s more like “rampant”.  This place is nothing like the communist Soviet Union I visited in 1988.  The two biggest surprises for me were the fact that the vast majority of schools here are private schools, and charge the parents considerable amounts to take in their kids. The other is that people can buy their own homes with a mortgage – two no-no’s of the communism of only a decade ago. 

A distant third surprise is the insane amount of construction going on everywhere (even in the rural areas), apparently spurred by significant foreign investment.  Add to that the fact that most of these kids are only 21 years old, so they weren’t really aware of what life was like before the changes.  Older folks I talk to remember the period from 1959 – 1989 painfully well, and are glad to be rid of it.


A woman gazes out of a window in her home in Datong.

Teacher’s Day

Today (September 10th) was Teacher’s day, which means some of us got the afternoon off (I slept for six hours before dinner) and all of us were deluged with moon cakes (more about that and the Moon Festival next week).  The kids in my advanced class gave me a gift – a blind and scarred bunny rabbit in a globe with sparkly things inside when you turn it upside down.  Nobody could explain to me the eye patch, the scar, or why the other eye didn’t seem to be working to well either.  Notice also the eyelet drilled into its head, no doubt without the aid of Novocain.  The poor bunny!  There was also a music box in the bottom, which played Brahms’ Lullaby, a tune many Chinese associate with Christmas.  (Yes, they know about Christmas, just like the Americans know about St. Patrick’s day.)   This is probably the most unusual gift I’ve received in years.


Space Camp

During my first week in High School #80 (“the USC of high schools”), there was a team of European space scientists on campus to do a week-long lecture series on a variety of space subjects. (This was mostly to promote math and science in the schools, as well as to publicize the ESA’s “Beagle II”, their version of the Mars Pathfinder Rover scheduled to be launched this year, and named after the ship that Charles Darwin traveled on.)

Each night they would give a brief lecture on a subject, and then let the class loose to pursue their own designs. One night they discussed and built rockets; the night I was there they were working on building robot arms out of chopsticks and rubber bands. (See photos.)

One lecture talked about power requirements, heat dissipation, and the efficiency of solar collectors. Students were to design on paper a scaled-down spacecraft that met a set of operational requirements, and then build a mock-up.

After the week of classes was over, the students and lecturers had a party, and the Europeans invited me to attend — ostensibly because of my NASA background, but I think they just wanted another white guy to do Karaoke with them and dilute the embarrassment.

Chinese high school parties are very different from those in the states. First, they all played musical chairs (!). Then various students were called up for impromptu performances – some would play Chinese flutes, one kid did handstands, one person sang a song, one did his standup comedy routine.

I was asked to play the Xaphoon (which, of course, I had with me!) I performed two of the most popular songs in China – “‘Auld Lang Syne'” (which everyone thinks is a Chinese folk song) (come to think of it, most Americans think it’s an American song!), and “It’s Yesterday Once More” by Karen Carpenter. Thunderous applause ensued. I like it here.

Karaoke was next, and occupied most of the rest of the evening. The songs the students selected would be classified in America as that which would be heard on a “beautiful music” radio station. Except it wasn’t just elevator music; it was alive with meaning and soul for all who sang them.  Kids in the audience sang along, too.

Then it was the space team’s turn. The only English song available on the Karaoke machine that we all knew was “YMCA” by the Village People. And it’s a law that you can’t sing it without also doing the hand motions imitating the four letters. The students went wild – and the image of a bunch of ecstatic Chinese students getting out of their seats and doing the YMCA dance that they had never seen before will forever be etched upon my mind.

Later that evening, I was asked to sign autographs (I guess just because I was a foreigner) and was also asked many times, “What is YMCA?”

Until next time…

“Yours Truly, Gary Friedman”

September 10, 2003