05 August 2012

White Mans' Broadening

Yesterday I was hired to be a caucasian. That was evidently my most sought after qualification for a job that I accepted on short notice for a Saturday. The agent hiring me is somehow involved in advising and facilitating students who want to study abroad. Initially I was asked to present the company's business plan with a PPT address. I hesitated and given that the PPT had not yet been translated from Chinese for me, the agent passively acquiesced. The job took place in Bengbu, Anhui, about an hour by Gaotie from Nanjing South station. The train left at 7 am so that I could be at the appointed location to deliver a 10 minute address at 9 am. It was a very early start of a long day. I had some idea what I would say. I've been tutoring foreign bound Chinese students for many years so I knew that I could translate that experience into something oratorical.
The venue turned out to be in meeting rooms on the third floor of a Citicbank. I was then approached by a young man who acted as though part of the same organization that hired me. He rattled off his Chinese name faster than I could catch and the advised me to call him Jean if his Chinese name was too difficult to say. He asked what I was going to talk about since he would be interpreting for me to the audience. I was a bit disoriented by this since, up until then, I was under the impression that I would be speaking to prospective students with moderately passable English language skills. He agreed but suggested that as a convenience he would repeat my words in Chinese. I proposed that I would elicit from the students some of the reasons that they wanted to study abroad rather than speaking at them for a full 10 minutes. He agreed that such interaction would be appropriate and useful.
There was a slight delay before I was called into the room to deliver my address. I had been imagining that I would be speaking while standing and able to interact as I would do so in a classroom. Instead, three of us were seated behind a very solid desk and on a dais that one finds in every traditional Chinese classroom. I looked out at the attendees and saw not the youthful faces that I was expecting but the faces of those who would be footing the bill for their children's expeditionary ventures, their middleclass parents. I counted only 3 students in the audience out of about 35. This was a very revealing ratio and hinted at the reason why Citicbank was sponsoring this event.
I stuck with the agreed upon plan but mindful of the time horizon I tried stretching out my own introduction, mentioning how I first met mainland Chinese students when I was an undergraduate and how as the conditions in China have changed so have the numbers and nature of overseas studies changed. I only knew graduate students who were sponsored by the central government. Now their children were getting similar advantages but as undergraduates. After being prompted to speak, three students stood in turn and mentioned why they wanted to study abroad. Their answers were surprisingly clear and focussed. I ended my address by mentioning that in my lifetime I was witness to a shift in the kinds of Chinese students that are able in such large numbers to study abroad.
I got a slight hint that I had underspoken according to the schedule, but since I was on stage, I was safe from reproach. I then sat through the next presenter, who appeared from Citibank, delivering her powerpoint, reading along with the same text that appeared on the screen behind and above our heads. I was led out of the next speaker's equally enthralling PPT presentation by Jean who was worried that I felt hot by sitting there and doing nothing. I was struck then by how good Jean was at getting people do what he wanted them to do without explaining his true motives. He wanted me off the stage, I reckoned, because I looked bored or I was depreciating my value as the caucasian in the room and distracting from the salespitch underway.
The next phase of the event for which I was specifically compensated for began soon thereafter. I sat at a table while the other ladies who travelled with me to Bengbu attempted to answer and convince anxious parents about how to navigate through academic application processes, visas, and other proffered services that can enhance a student's admission. I was there to lend some sort of credible appearance, but mainly I was expected to look white. I was especially glad that I had brought along a good book, Hessler's Country Driving, from a man who can, I suspect, empathize with my situation.
Lunch was offered but not worthy of comment and then it was naptime. This amounted to finding a comfortable sleeping position somewhere and getting some shuteye for an hour. The Han Chinese are extremely adept at this. I have witnessed workmen take midday naps on concrete slabs with nothing more than a piece of cardboard for a pillow. While the other three women were able to make the most of the downtime, I struggled to sleep without throwing my cervical vertebrae out of alignment.
After our rest it was 2 pm and time for the second phase of my paid compensation. I was initially told that I would be giving some sort of practice speaking tests similar to IELTS and TOEFL. I offered to bring my IELTS testing materials but before embarking that morning I was told that I didn't need to do anything so formal, that I would be just chatting with students. At the appointed moment for the informal chats, Jean called me into another room and handed me the test forms, essentially shanzhai versions of IELTS speaking tests prompts, and told me to just mark the students on a scale of 1-9.
The first interviewee was a young woman not yet ready for study abroad for several reasons. She was still a few years away from graduation and very confused about how to answer simple questions. In many ways she was a typical girl of her age. She was being told by her mother that she would study abroad to learn accounting because her mother, an accountant, was certain that such a decision was the right thing to do. The young woman, on the other hand, wanted to learn about filmmaking. But she was so convinced that the only way to learn about filmmaking was to attend the Beijing Film Academy and so without the support of her mother, she was resigned to never be able to make films. I pointed out that a young man with a camera had been filming the day's events but she could not make a connection between the handheld camera and her personal goals. I gave her a score and awaited the next interviewee.
I recognized the next student from that morning's session, a bubbly, bright eyed, young woman who had changed her clothes in the interim. She was convinced that studying accounting abroad would ensure herself a bright future. It was fruitless to challenge her conclusions since she was both fairly articulate and her enthusiasm was disarming. But her main argument was that this is what everybody was doing so it was a good idea for her, too.
The third student was a younger man who would be involved in an exchange program in September. I heard him say Massachusetts and I thought I heard him say Medfield. It might be this school, Montrose, which fosters student exchange programs. Massachusetts is ahead of the curve when it comes accommodating middle class Chinese ambitions for their children. Generally Han Chinese look down on private schools as being less meritorious and more susceptible to corruption. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have gradually changed that perception, at least, of overseas schools. He spoke in a very reserved manner and was not able to engage in much of a conversation, but he acted matured and confident to be able to handle a few weeks abroad amongst his peers and to develop international guanxi.
The last student turned out to be the most memorable. I didn't recognize her from that morning but she told a common story. She wanted to continue her studies abroad after graduating from Nanjing University of Finance and Economics. Yes, she, too, wanted to study accounting, having decided that a master's degree from a foreign university would ensure her a bright future. And yet that is where her logic broke down, at least, a foreigner might see it so. I asked about why she felt it was necessary to study something as mundane as accounting in a foreign university. (I didn't even bother to get into the very different accounting standards between China and every other industrialized country.) Was it necessary for her parents to spend so much money when she was already ready trained to find employment? She explained that because it was so hard to get a job in China now, it was necessary to get an advanced degree. But then how does an advanced degree change the circumstances? She laughed, explaining that the Chinese government wants students to earn advanced degrees to reduce pressure on the labor market. It's what everybody is doing, she continued to chuckle at my naivete. Besides she insisted the Chinese economy is booming and all she needed was an advanced degree to ensure a bright future. I repeated my original question: why did she want to study abroad. Her answer stunned me. "To broaden my horizon." Where did that notion come from? Was she not just claiming that the motives were financial and based on job market pressures? Oh, she misspoke. Broadening her horizon was really the second reason. I was not going to get her to change her mind, certainly not in such a short time, but it was not even possible to get her to change how she thought about her rationale. I have encountered his kind of reasoning over and over again. Danwei has posted an essay from a Chinese student living abroad. The same nonsequiturs and logical fallacies are commonplace in Chinese academic writing. It dawned on me a short while afterwards that this young woman had no understanding what it meant to broaden her horizons. She had memorized that phrase and decided that it sounded impressive to toss it about in an admissions interview. To use the phrase: broaden one's horizon is evidently useful in helping Chinese students to remain students and postpone their adulthood as long as possible.

1 comment:

aywg said...

Mitch,

The West needs their money (or originally 'our money' spent buying plastic crap).

Just looking at the UK (now a UN dustbin). We have nothing left to sell but our soul - better Chinese students with cash (who'll most likely bog-off once they realise what a toilet the UK has become) then the relentless swarms of fake ayslum-seekers from the third-world.

So, I respect your sincere intentions in seeking the motivations of those going abroad (you do know it's the parents developing a passport for their 'dirty-money'), however in the immortal words of Cartman of South Park "Scr*w you guys, I'm going home!".

Ashley.