30 May 2008

work, work, workweek

For the third week of May my employer decided that I didn’t need any days off. Decided is perhaps too strong a word to describe the process. It’s clear that on some levels, this organization, like many businesses in China, doesn’t coordinate the efforts of all its departments. So even though it was, seemingly randomly, scheduled that I give an additional lecture as part of a “webwide” open class series on food culture on a Thursday, (My offdays are Thursdays and Wednesdays.) the marketing department also scheduled me to speak in a local high school on the Wednesday of the same week. Just to throw in an additional comment about labor relations in China, I asked that since my regularly scheduled days off had fallen on the same day as the Mayday holiday the previous week, whether I would gain an additional, bankable paid holiday. I was told to wait for a definitive answer as I was being told about the fact that I was expected to give up my Wednesday to speak to a group of highschoolers. I am still waiting for that definitive answer.

My direct manager assured me that I would be paid for the overtime for the additional assignments. He didn’t say however how much time. I would still have to prepare materials for both lectures. I asked what the high school students would want to know from me, what would interest them because as I pointed out, knowing this might help me decide what to talk about. My coworkers seem evasive about the actual purpose of my speaking role. They never explicitly told me that I was being paid to entice students from the visited school (The number of students was originally expected to be fewer than 300 since that is the capacity of the auditorium, but this is China. The students overfilled the seats and the aisles. The total seemed to be closer to 400.) to listen to somebody for an hour in order to get them to sign up as students. It might seem odd that the school would host an overflowing crowd in order to sell main its advantage to potential clients, that being direct contact with a native speaker. How well I can speak in front of a crowd says little, if anything, as to whether I can provide valuable instruction in a facetoface setting. But the school’s marketing plan was never about demonstrating pedagogical competency; it is primarily about proving to as many that they, in fact, have real, native English speakers working in the school. So there I was for all to gawk at. How soon would the bidding start?

When I arrived at the school on the day of the lecture, it was my first opportunity to witness a large banner with my first name boldly interwoven with a confusing mass of other Chinese characters over a background showing the cathedral grounds of Pisa. I asked my coworkers what it said about me and they explained that it was just the subject of the topic that I had chosen. It seemed to be a lot more than my chosen topic. I wanted as much as possible to give the students something meaningful and to not have my lecture sound like a salespitch. I still had no idea about the English level of these students although my coworkers had been assuring me, in a somewhat envious tone, that this was the best high school in the city. The proof was that the teachers are paid enough to drive to school where they enjoy underground parking. I was told that the students want to know about foreign countries so I thought I might tackle a particularly odd response to a frequent answer I have when I have been teaching in China. Quite frequently whenever I ask a student to tell me why he is studying English, I get the terse reply: ‘Travel abroad.’ When I then try to develop a conversation, I ask a simple followup: ‘Where do you want to travel?’ I usually get a blank stare or a rehearsed, and rather illconceived, itinerary. In the minds of the average Chinese student, abroad is somehow a destination to as much as a destination from. I wanted, therefore, to discuss some real places in the world where I have visited in order to get them to hold a meaningful discussion with me and to entice to think outside their normally restricted scope.

The students began wandering in shortly after 4 p.m. I started the lecture about 15 minutes later with a microphone in hand and simply said: ‘Good afternoon.’ The voices chanted back at me while the mulling, upright crowd more hastily found places. A high school representative distributed plastic stacking stools while I tried to move up the aisles, making eye contact as I did. One energetic student asked about her former teacher at another private training school. Yes, I told her that he now worked with me. I put up a large topographical map of the Mediterranean basin and using the cursor on the laptop, I encircled the nations of Greece, Turkey, and Italy. As the students parroted my words back to me, I got the odd feeling that they knew the drill and that I was playing a role that I was less familiar with. I slowly introduced myself, explaining that I had taught in China for more than a year and I often asked my students why they were studying English. An answer that I often received was: “I want to travel abroad.” I paused and repeated and the students repeated without my intending them to. I then tried to hint at the emptiness of this goal. “Where is abroad?”, I intoned slowly. I repeated and generated some puzzled expressions. I held the microphone to a student who seemed about to burst and asked again. He enunciated: “Your country.” I smiled but that answer started many students to nod and repeat their own words in agreement. I tried to backtrack and restate the original question, picking from the crowd an brighteyed student who was chomping at the bit to say something. I pointed at the overhead projection and asked him where abroad is. He stated proudly: “I want to go to university in your country.”

There was some laughter in good humor and I decided that I might do better to start showing some of the other images that I had assembled. I showed an aerial view of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I don’t know what the students were reacting to but it sounded like a positive murmur. I iterated that knowing how to speak will allow them to travel to places like Istanbul. Most repeated Istanbul without any prompting from me; they were on their own parallel track, it seemed. I also repeated Istanbul so as not to be left out of the program. I showed some different streetscenes and spoke in slow, short sentences in order to keep the mass of students with varying levels of interest able to follow me where I was headed. I led them around the city that I had once visited but the images of which I had been forced to appropriate from the internet. There were a few photos of the Egyptian covered market and of the city walls. I then tried to show a change in approach with a change in the tone of my voice. I showed some exterior views of the Topkapi palace then I suggested that there were some things in this building that they might find interesting. It can be challenging to distinguish between focused attention and indifferent silence. I showed the students the first of several pieces on display in a room of the Topkapi palace. It was a celadon platter with a distinctive dragon motif. The level of chatter bubbled up. I asked some questions that could be answered as a mob. “Do you know this?” “Where does it come from?” “How do you know?” They started shouting dragon and I acknowledged this by saying myself, “Yes, there’s a dragon.” They repeated after me in unison: “A dragon.”

I then became all professorial with them, deviating from the unwritten script. “But this is Turkey. Not China. How did these items get to Turkey?” I showed some other pieces all of the highest quality ever made for the export and diplomatic market. There was marked silence, but I felt I was in a groove. “This is why you go abroad to a place like Istanbul. You can learn more things about China by leaving China.” I repeated the idea that Turkey is a bridge between the far sides of Eurasia but I am not certain just what any of the students gathered from this display of their cultural legacy. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of overlap in the Chinese classroom. It is acceptable to learn oral English in oral English class and the right kind of Chinese history in Chinese history class taught by a Chinese teacher. And simply because I can show evidence of trade in porcelain dating from about the 15th century doesn’t make it true necessarily and just because it can be shown with evidence doesn’t mean that the information might ever show up on a test, which is the basis for ever considering knowledge worth knowing. I hear repeated to me again and again that China has 5,000 years of history. The students know that this is true because it is the proper answer to the test question: How many years of Chinese history are there?

I pulled in the next theme of Turkey being tied in with China by getting them to mention the Olympics, the rallying cry for these students and the nation for the last few years as to what will put China into the world’s spotlight. I showed some images of the stadium in Aphrodisias and mentioned that the best preserved Greek stadia are not located in Greece. This seemed to generate a few quizzical reactions, which I hoped to get asked about later. I jumped ahead to a photo, my only personal example, of me standing in front of the temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily. I don’t know what they know about classicism or whether these edifices have even remotely the same appeal to them as to me as a classics major. I thought about asking them to think about the many banks, churches, and other important buildings in Shanghai and other Chinese cities with some extant preMaoist architecture. I showed a few more images from Agrigento but then I left up on the screen an image of a Turkish doughnutmaker looking very much like the streetvendors in Heze, Shandong province, where a few make their doughnuts in a wok with dough rapidly measured out with chopsticks, while controlling a woodfire.

I explained that it was the end of my talk and I would answer any questions that they had. I was hoping to get some feedback as to how much they had been able to understand and what they might already know about the topic. But in fact they knew the routine so much better than I did. The questions were in various forms: “Where are you from?” “Do you like Chinese food?” “Can you tell me how to go to an American university?” “What do I do if I am invited to a foreigner’s house for dinner?” And even though I was deflated, I followed their routine and my obligations to the school were fulfilled for that Wednesday.

I spent a good portion of the next morning, preparing for a ‘new’ lecture series, so called Open class series, which seems to have been mandated by the central office of the school’s franchise headquarters in Shanghai. This series might be related to the school’s one year anniversary or not. And the theme “Food Culture” theme might change or be repeated at some undisclosed time in the near or distant future. The three foreign teachers were assigned the following food topics: coffee, chocolate, and coke. Until we were told about the open class series, we had been working with some local business contacts and been trying to organize a series of winetasting dinners. We had developed contacts who were willing to work with us for securing venues with wine distributors, one that was very eager to begin importing more Italian wines into the area. I mused: “We could start them off serving Lambrusco without Sprite and then have them savoring Puglian Primitivo by the end.” Whenever we brought up the subject, concerns about costs (whenever I countered that the costs would be borne by the wine distributors and retailers, the school was either unwilling or unable to accept this notion.) and whether guests from outside the school might be attending. We welcomed more attendees to develop connections within the local community and to spread through word of mouth; the school wanted more control and to follow the same methods as used by the other private training schools in the area.

I chose to talk about coke because it would allow me to vent my anticorporate spleen in the middle of a regime based on partially decentralizing authoritarian capitalism. My talk to the gathered students was how a civil war veteran, a trained chemist, from Atlanta, Georgia was hoping to make a windfall with a brain tonic that could be sold at soda fountains and help all the presuffragette, temperance movement commandos calm down their frazzled nerves and feel refreshed with a boost from the caffeine in the kola nuts after they had spent their leisure time, praying outside or smashing up the saloons that were the scourge of decent society. Afterwards socially progressive dries would also celebrate their advancing agenda with a pleasantly soothing opiate. Pemberton, having been wounded during the war and given the main painkiller at the time, was also hoping to come up a cure for his own opiate addiction. And as many people at the time reckoned, if anything could cure an opiate addiction, why not cocaine? I could have mentioned the caricature of Santa Claus created by a Coca-cola advertising campaign but instead I talked about how the temperance movement ushered in the Prohibition era and then drew a parallel with China’s own cultural revolution, the chaos that ensued, and how that has affected American society ever since. I would have been overjoyed if one student had been willing to take this idea and develop it further, but there was no interest. This was just an oral English lesson so it was really too much to ask that they make comparisons based on their own historical knowledge. To be fair this food culture talk was an additional hour of lecturing in a long day’s schedule for most of them. It was, therefore, a good idea that I had prepared to give them a coke taste test. I explained the definition of a double blind test and then I selected some testers and had them choose prepoured samples in the next room.

In hindsight, I should have outlined a script for them to follow. There was very little productive dialogue between testers and tasters. Rather than testing to see which of the samples was the best tasting and learning why, they all decided to quickly determine simply which the coke and which the pepsi was. I don’t think it was because of language challenges; they purposely avoided asking opinions or sharing them, preferring instead to determine the identities. When I pressed them to identify which samples each student liked above the others, only half participated and I marked those preferences on the board next to the samples A, B, and C. Their choices, however, were evenly spread across the three samples despite the claims that they knew the identities of each sample. By the end I was exhausted. I left the school that night, knowing that I still had another workweek before I could enjoy a full day away from this job.