CHINA JOURNAL---WEDNESDAY, MARCH 13 AND THURSDAY, March 14, 2002
My workload has just taken a dramatic leap forward. On Wednesday, after school, Sun Zhi Hong and Zhang Fu Ling with driver Jian Goa picked me up to go the the Nankai Research Bureau which, so far as I can figure out, is rather like our county Superintendent of Schools office. There we met with two other people in a beautiful room with a huge Chinese scenery painting at one end (covered by wrinkled plastic, unfortunately) and large, highly lacquered wooden furniture in a fine design. It was placed around the room Arab style, flat to the walls, which gave a huge space to talk across. (That was okay with me as Sun Zhi Hong sat on the other side to smoke his cigarettes.) There was the look of bright red upholstery so I was taken by surprise as I sat down and hit hard wood. The ``upholstery'' turned out to be back and bottom cushions about the thickness of the mattress cushion on the bed frames. I was seated with Su Dong Yu, a delightful woman who is in charge of one part of the English program for the whole Nankai district, which includes primary, elementary, and high schools, both public and private. Her English is very comfortable.
What we were deciding on was how best to use me for the teachers in the district who are supposedly eager for help with their English. We had a very interesting talk about their education system and the problems they encounter. Many are similar to ours, such as unmotivated junior high students. She feels that their older teachers are very set in the old ways of primarily rote recitation from the first grade up and unwilling to learn new techniques. The younger ones are more willing but want to learn all the wonderful ideas and approaches we certainly must have in America. I mentioned that there were quite a few things I admired in their system, such as the recitation, giving students responsibilities, and fostering respect for adults.
There are about 200 English teachers in primary schools in their district and the same number in their middle schools (lower = grades 7, 8, 9 and upper = grades 10, 11, 12.) Their plan is for me to meet for two hours each Wednesday morning alternating between the primary and the middle school teachers200 at a whack. That part doesn't faze me, but what she wants is a bit of a challenge. For the first lecture, she would like it (all two hours) to be on the education system of the United States. I explained that I was not an expert on that, but that is what she wantsfollowed by talks on our habits, our living styles, etc. In other words, American culture. I have the distinct feeling from our teachers that they are hungry for good solid help with English. We left with a compromise. I will speak on American education for the first half and teaching English the second half. Hey, I'm the foreigner, so I'm automatically designated an expertrather a scary concept. I asked if the teachers would be able to understand me. She said they would. Given my experience with several English teachers, I am not at all confident that they will. I'll have to really be careful with how I handle ittwo hours of not understanding is a long time to sit even if it does mean you get a morning off from teaching.
Today I taught my first class at the middle school, a group equivalent to 10th graders in the U.S. I found out about this yesterday and, true to form, was given no book or any information so I simply walked into the class cold. (It is as if the person speaking English doesn't have to do any preparation, just walk in and speak English and magic will happen.) Just before class when I was ``talking'' to the headmaster, I asked for a copy of the book. I haven't looked closely but it is seems around junior high level in a good U.S. school in terms of the reading material. I went into class and, just as I have found throughout, they cannot carry on nearly as good a conversation as my four year old grandson. They are maybe slightly better than the one who just turned three. After class, an English teacher brought three of his students in to display their English in front of the headmaster. I was embarrassed for them because they can't get past more than a broken sentence or twothis after ten years of study.
From these experiences I have the heart of my talk on American education. In spite of all our problems, the heart of good American education is to get students to think, to problem solve. That ability to problem solve is one of the reasons that American expertise is respected throughout the world. It starts in early when we ask our children questions that make them think. All those old ``who, what, why, where, when and how'' questions. The Chinese version of teaching English is primarily rote memory, and they are very good at it. However, there is very little carry over from one lesson to the next, and the questions rarely go beyond the literal level into making inferences or applying the knowledge. As a result, all the vocabulary they have ``learned'' throughout the years is not really available to them. The written grammar structures get built up more because they are repeated. So why do Asians do so well in school in the United States? Because their parents respect education and expect them to produce. When the students are exposed to the questioning kind of education, they soak it right up and do extremely well. I hope that in my short time here I can get that across both to some teachers and some students.
My trip to the middle school was interesting. They have finally caught on to some of my approach. Instead of sending a driver to pick me up for the first day, they sent a man on a bike to ride over with me. I was pretty sure I knew the way but not positive. I do now, so next Thursday I hope to go unescorted. There are two big streets to cross but we just worked our way through and I didn't die of fright.
The first week here I talked about how frightening the traffic is and mentioned the bus that almost ran down a bicycle rider and me. I've since learned that the bus driver in question was an exception rather than the norm, which is probably why the bicyclist was so upset. Actually I've come to be amazed in a positive way at the traffic in China and have a great deal of respect for it. They would take the crown as the merge-masters of the world, I do believe. It is frightening if you are thinking in terms of stateside traffic rules and conventions, but there is a whole different set of conventions in place hereand they work, remarkably well.
Picture three huge schools of fish approaching an ``intersection'' in the ocean. There is no signal where one group stops while the other continues. They all keep moving. Each individual fish has the same aimto continue going in his chosen direction without bumping into any of the other fish. They work their way through without hitting, almost as if there is a little air shield around each one, so that in the middle there is a mixture of all the different fish going in different directions. Finally each emerges on the other side and continues on. That's the way the traffic moves here with buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians all in the mixture.
Its workability depends on several factors. No one travels fast. Cars move along at a steady speed of maybe 15 to 20 MPH. Buses putz along at the same speed. There are no fast starts and stops. No bicycle riders ride fast. I was put off at first by the slow bike speed, slower than I normally cruise and I am not fast. I soon realized that everybody getting through the fish swarm is dependent on everyone moving fairly slowly. I had my bike seat up relatively high in American style until I realized that there is a reason why bike riders here have such low seats. It is important to be able to stay seated and put your feet flat on the ground instantly as you wait for an opportunity to continue. My seat is now lowered.
The system also depends on no one trying to be king-of-the-road. No matter whether you are a pedestrian, bike rider, car, or bus driver you start working your way through an intersection. As I walked by myself this afternoon across the big intersection toward Nankai University and I found myself alone in the middle of this huge intersection working my way through moving bus and car traffic, the adjective intrepid' flashed into my mind. It fits. You learn to read each other in terms of who is going to go first or to give way, and those signals are forthcoming but very subtle. It worksrather amazingly. You do find yourself looking in all four directions not just as you start to cross a street but all the way across. An aerial view would look just like the fish swarm I described.
The bus system is apparently quite extensive. The wide variety of buses includes a wide variety of ages and conditions from one (only one) that was relatively new with seat covers to ones that sound as if they might be on their last leg. Many have a row of single seats on each side leaving plenty of aisle space for standing passengers. You stuff your paper money in the money box as you enter. If you have a five yuan bill and you only need to pay one, you just stand in the front and ask the next four passengers to pay you their one yuan which they do happily. The driver apparently doesn't monitor it. However there are some buses (on busy routes at busy hours?) where there is a fare monitor who stands at the exit door, goes up and down and collects, gets out to drum up business at a stop and usually has a good hog-calling voice. A few buses have a monitor who sits at the front next to the driver. The typical price is 1 yuan, about $.13. A forty- minute ride to the train station, which involves two buses, costs 2 yuan, $.25. On our 6:05 in the morning departures, the bus approaches slowly, normally with no lights on even though it is still dark. If it approaches another vehicle that needs to know it is there, then the lights go on briefly. Quite a few vehicles do that. There is no provision that I have seen for wheelchair riders.
On the bicycles, I have never seen a rider with a helmet. (I brought mine and wear it.) Neither have I seen a single headlight or a reflector that can be seen. So at night all this fish merging' is happening with dark bicycles and sometimes unlighted cars. The distinction between a man's and a woman's bike doesn't seem important here. There are many three-wheeled bikes used for transporting people in either open or enclosed seats in the back, any and every imaginable kind of goods, and your business on wheels. These get set up as all sorts of stands. Bike merchants seem to have their regular ``business'' spot. I'm curious to know whether they pay anyone for the privilege. I am quite fascinated by certain of these three-wheeled contraptions which must be double geared in some way. Their riders pedal backwards to move the bike forward.
Unfortunately I'm no good at reporting on car types other than to say that apparently several kinds are made in Beijing. I can report that even the nice ones often have a colorful chenille mat on each of the seats (which means three in the back) that scoot around every time you try to get in or out. The car Jian Goa drives also has lovely white eyelet covers over the head rests and the tops of the front seats which no longer take me by surprise as being incongruous.