Physics

Physics
23 million!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Grinch


This post is rather religious.  I've tried not to be preachy, but if you'd like to avoid this topic, I'll understand.

"We have Christmas in China now," one of my students said several months ago, tossing her long, silky black hair over a shoulder.

"Do you believe in Christ?"  I asked, curious.

Silence.  She looked caught off guard, uncomfortable.  Then:  "Well...no..."  She trailed off.

Then, just a week ago, my students were working on their "bucket lists".  When I told them to imagine they had a month to live (and would die December 14th), one of my older students exclaimed, "But that's right before Christmas!"

I remember laughing.  "But you're Chinese!"  I said.  "Why do you care?"

He looked crushed.

I felt like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings--Christmas is mine!  My own!  My prrrecioussss!  It wasn't the Christmas spirit at all, but I couldn't help it:  It seemed to me as if my students were acting excited about Christmas because Westerns were doing it--plain and simple.  Like wearing Levis or drinking Starbucks.  But there didn't seem to be an understanding that the very word referred to Christ, to Christianity.

When my family lived in China in the late 80s, there was no church for us to attend.  Qinghai Province was a hardscrabble place, where survival was good enough.  Any Muslim or Buddhist pilgrims bowing their way across the desert were kind of laughed at out there. 

There are Catholics in Shanghai, believe it or not, openly worshipping the Virgin Mary and saying the "Our Father".  But China’s government is officially atheist—Communist Party members are forbidden from belonging to a religion.  So of course, Catholic priests must be approved by the government in Beijing (Wikipedia, that source of all knowledge, says:  “All worship must legally be conducted through state-approved churches belonging to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which does not accept the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.”).  In the past, those who disagreed “were subject to oppression, including long imprisonments as in the case of Cardinal Kung, and torture and martyrdom as in the case of Fr. Beda Chang, S.J." (again, Wikipedia).  According to the Pew Research Center, only about 5% of Chinese people declare themselves Christian.  China never ceases to amaze me with its ability to say one thing and do another:  A non-Christian country that has imprisoned Christians for spreading the Word now has citizens that want to celebrate Christmas! 

Just because they put up some decor doesn't mean anything, I've grumbled inwardly, more than once.  But isn't that what happens in America?  Can you honestly tell me that ALL of those light-hanging American present-slingers think about WHY?

"There's wealth associated with Christmas," one of my ex-pat friends said. 

She had a point.  Thanksgiving weekend sees a whopping $50 billion in retail sales, according to the National Retail Federation--that's 20% of total annual sales—possibly more. 

"It's a sign of status to spend and to do what foreigners do," my friend continued.  She'd lived in Shanghai a bit longer than I had, so her information was usually good.  "That's what they care about.  It has nothing to do with beliefs."  I agreed that she was probably right, but I still felt like a child unwilling to share her favorite toy.  Here in Shanghai, I find myself ungenerous with my own religion. 

I also find myself unable to attend church most of the time.  Teaching working adults means that I work Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings.  My days off are Monday and Tuesday, and most of the time I am running errands--or hiding in my apartment, away from 23 million people, watching Netflix.  I don't make the effort to ride two subways over an hour away to go to a quiet weekday mass.  I've probably attended church three times here since I arrived in July of 2013.

My unintentional Scrooginess with my students has forced me to take a good hard look at myself and my beliefs.  Whether Chinese people believe in Christ or not is not really for me to judge, is it?  Will Christmas lose its meaning for me just because millions of people blindly celebrate Christmas?  Sometimes I'm afraid it will.  Then...the problem here is with my own faith--not with what other people do.

It would be so much easier to stay angry at my students, and to even blame them somehow, no matter how irrational that sounds.

However, rather than making an opportunity to invite Chinese people to discuss Christmas, to learn about what it means, I've been shutting them down.  I've been shutting the door.

Is that what a good Christian does?

I keep coming back to Matthew 7:5.  I'm worrying about the behavior of others--judging it--when I should deal with my own shortcomings.

Americans consider blowing half a year's savings on Christmas a sign of status, too.  We want that perfect Disney-Hallmark-Christian Christmas, when everyone in the family gets along, the meal is perfect, and the gifts are unforgettable.  We make ourselves crazy trying to make this happen.  "Keep the Christ in Christmas" seems like clich├ęd advice from a bingo-playing granny, but Granny has a point.  What's more important to me, to us:  missing family to work overtime so we can buy the latest gadgets and the hottest fashions?  Or having a smaller, less expensive holiday, but one in which we can actually spend time with loved ones?

The meaningful thing, the good thing, is usually not the flashiest.  A good Christmas is usually not the one we see on TV--we see the extravagant Christmas, the perfect Christmas.  And we all want that.  But is it real?

But some of my best Christmas thoughts aren't about gifts at all. 

When I was a child, my mom used to put a little nightlight in the bathroom for us at Christmas time, or in our bedrooms when we were sick.  The nightlight was a little ceramic house, maybe five inches square, painted like brown brick, its roof draped with snow the way a gingerbread house is coated with frosting.  A single small light bulb glowed from the house's tiny windows, shining through the holes ("ornaments") on the little tree outside the house.  So warm and so cozy!  How many nights did I fall asleep looking at it?

I also used to love to watch the tree.  My dad put the lights on a timer, and sometimes if I couldn't sleep I'd sneak out to the couch and stare at the tree while the lights were still on--the bubble lights gurgling, the silver horses dangling on their red cords, Mom's reindeer hanging from the prickly pine branches.  The little portraits my sister and I had made in preschool hanging near the top of the tree.  I have felt more peace looking at a Christmas tree--alone in the cozy darkness of my house--than I have almost anywhere else.

It occurs to me that both of these thoughts are about light, and how Christians are supposed to be the light of the world.

I am human and I have messed up.  I've been stingy when perhaps I can find a way to share.

I will try my best to change that this Christmas.

Postscript:  During a Current Events class about the American tradition of Thanksgiving, one of my students wanted to know the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I had to smile, because her confusion was understandable:  due to marketing and the media, everything between Halloween and Valentine's Day probably seems one big candy and gift fest.

Carefully, I told them that Christians believe Christmas is the day Christ was born.  Most of them nodded.  They've heard of Christ, and they seem to know the basics.  Some of them did seem to know that decoration and presents are just for show a lot of the time--no matter the holiday, no matter the country.

I'll admit when I saw IHOP's holiday pancakes commercial (online) right after Halloween, I felt a wave of nostalgia and homesickness.  People in the marketing business know exactly what they're doing, and we fall for it every time. 

Without trying to sound preachy, I told my students that the commercialism bothers me.  It does hurt me sometimes--here and at home--when people put up a tree or buy presents without thinking about why.  It's exactly like having a birthday party and not even speaking to the guest of honor--we wouldn't do that to a human person--why are we doing it to Jesus?

Christmas is in the heart, not in the other stuff.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A question of physics: How a city moves


It ain't rocket science; rather, simple physics:  two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  Physicists would agree--check out Einstein or Pauli. 

But the laws of physics do not apply in Shanghai, arguably the largest city in the world.  Countless experiences with subways and elevators have taught me (and many other ex-pats) that Shanghainese do not believe in physics.

Let me elucidate.  Imagine it's the tail end of the morning rush, and you are on subway line 10, heading south to East Nanjing Road.  As the subway pulls in, you see people in single file lines, five deep, on either side of the sliding doors.  Ah, queues!  To most Westerners, an orderly line is probably one of the highest benchmarks of what we consider developed civilization.  And for two seconds after the doors open, the illusion holds.  Your right foot crosses the gap between subway car and station platform, but before it makes contact, you are suddenly pummeled backward, carried by the oncoming rush of 5'2" Asians, their families, their suitcases, backpacks, and trolleys.  But...but...what happened to the queues?  you wonder, fighting (as politely as you can at first) to get out at your stop.  The queues had scattered into chaos, like a platoon in the face of an enemy grenade.  Because, you see, this is China.  People don't do lines here.  When the train arrives, it's every person for themselves.

This is understandable if you look at the history of this nation.  Not even 50 years ago people queued up for rice, or whatever was on their ration ticket, or queued up for the train.  But tickets guaranteed you nothing, and neither did waiting in line.  It was always first come, first served.  You wanna eat today?  Push to the front.

I saw the train phenomena for myself in late 1980s Qinghai.  As foreigners, my family paid double or triple what a local would pay and secured a soft sleeper cabin--four bunks for the four of us.  We were lucky.  Our expensive tickets and foreigness seemed to let us escape some of the pandemonium.  For the Chinese, a ticket with a seat didn't mean the 30 people cutting in front of you respected that at all.  People pushed each other in through open windows, forgoing the line at the door once 50 bodies mashed together trying to get in.

To be fair, my mom lived in Florence, Italy for a year in the late 60s and said the Italians were just as bad.  So I'm not saying the aversion to lining up is strictly a Chinese thing.  But it does happen to be true for the 23 million Chinese people I move with every day.

The same anti-physics illogic applies to elevators and escalators as well.  With escalators, I'd always taken it for granted that people walk on the left, ride on the right.  And there are a few places where people follow this seemingly obvious logic.  But mostly people rush and shove to get on the escalator, and then they all stand there sedately until it reaches the top.  What was all the rushing for?  I always wonder, if you're just going to stand there?  The Chinese logic appears to be this:  Why take one minute going a flight of stairs when you can wait five minutes for the elevator to descend from the 26th floor to the first and then take it one floor up?  Why wait for people to exit, kindly leaving you ample space, when you can elbow, squeeze, shuffle, or cigarette burn your way in NOW? 

Well, I can't beat 23 million people!  So I've joined them, to some extent.  I'm not afraid to shove past an elderly couple (I jostle, I don't plow!) in order to exit the subway at my stop, and I've gotten over my friendly "I'm just a foreigner" ways when some granny tries to cut in line at the grocery store.  As a second in line, I've actually put out an arm past the person in front of me to the counter and said "No way!"  I don't care if they don't understand English.  My glittering eyes and body language say it all.  The longer I wait in line, the more protective I am of my place in it.

People in China are extremely kind if they know you.  If they don't, you're just the 20 millionth piece of meat they've pushed past today to get home.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Go go umbrella!


I support Hong Kong.  That’s probably not surprising coming from an American—our love of freedom and all.

 

For those of you not in the know, students and others in HK have been protesting the government on the mainland since late September.  The BBC has been blocked off and on for months.  Chow Yun Fat’s movies have been banned because he supports Hong Kong, too.  Even Kenny G has had to backtrack on his pro-HK stance, in order to keep his mainland fans happy.  Of course, YouTube, Google, and many other websites have been blocked for the entirety of my residency here in Shanghai.  Heck, I need a VPN just to post on this blog!

 

In 1997, when HK was handed back to the Chinese by the Brits, Beijing politicians agreed to a “one country, two systems” idea of government.  This means that HK has a different political system than the mainland does, even though they’re now considered the same country.  Actually, Hong Kong (“Fragrant Harbor”) is now known as “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the Peoples’ Republic of China”.  You have to admire the specificity of Communism, you really do.

 


In spite of the fact that HK has been reintegrated for 17 years now, the former British colony still enjoys many privileges that the mainland doesn’t.  For example, internet censorship regulations are different.

 

But after 99 years under the Brits, this isn’t good enough for many in HK.  When the announcement was made that candidates for the 2017 HK Chief Executive election must be screened and approved by Beijing first, all hell broke loose.

 

There has never been a crackdown on people wearing the British or U.S. flag here, though.  While many of my students and most coworkers say wearing the Chinese flag on clothing is illegal, I’ve been unable to see it specifically stated.  (Check out flagspot.net or search “Chinese flag law".)  It’s quite common to see the Union Jack decorating motor bikes, and the Stars and Stripes decorating chests, shoes, and even the seats of one’s trousers.  

  
                                                                                             

 I see Chinese people, possibly hot-blooded Communists loyal to the PRC, people against the right to choose their own leader, proudly draping themselves with that symbol of freedom, Old Glory.  I don’t get it, and I find it kind of disrespectful, actually.

 

But back to my point.

 

I am proud of HK.  I am proud of the U.N. and Amnesty International for supporting them.  I am proud of the protestors:  wearing Guy Fawkes masks, calling the movement Occupy Central With Peace and Love.  They carry umbrellas to defend themselves against tear-gas-toting police and triads (yes, even the Chinese mafia have been called in as enforcers)—hence “The Umbrella Movement”.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Spa Day


I was naked.

 

Without a stitch on, as they say.

 

As a blue jay, as the day I was born.

 

I stood next to the locker I’d just closed and, with my left hand, briefly clutched the plastic bracelet around my right wrist like it was a talisman.  The locker could be reopened by swiping the bracelet over the magnetic panel on the locker door.  I had a brief, ridiculous desire to re-open the locker and put my clothes back on.

 

Somehow I’d had two minutes to myself in this row of lockers to get undressed and mentally prepared.

 

For the staring.

 

Due to the fact that Gokurakuyu Japanese Bathhouse was way out in Pudong (or “Pu-Jersey”, as I liked to call it), I was the only non-Asian in the entire facility.  Constantly being stared at has been part of my overseas adventures since I was 10 years old, and now that I was buck-a*& nekkid, I was certainly glad no one would be able to carry their cell phones (with camera) into the spa.

 

Or would they?

 

I took a deep breath and straightened my spine.  This wasn’t my first bathhouse experience, I reminded myself.  I’d gone with some classmates to a Turkish bath while studying in Greece.

 

So this trip would be my second.

 

I walked out of the bank of lockers.  I passed a few women about my age or younger.  They were clad in pink and yellow floral p.j.s, on lend from the spa.  They were deep in conversation, cheeks flushed and giggling, hands fluttering like birds.  There was not one flicker of an eyelid my way.

 

Whew.  So far so good.

 

As I approached the carpeted and towel-layered stairs up to the baths, I spotted an old lady.  Her hair was gray, thin, and short, plastered wetly to her skull, her pink scalp showing through in places.  Her spine was slightly bent from osteoporosis; I doubt she’d have stood higher than my shoulder.  She was dabbing at her age-spotted skin with a towel.  Her eyes moved over to me—here it comes—moved away, and she continued about her business.

 

Wow.

 

The glass doors at the top of the stairs whispered apart as I approached.  I stepped onto the wet stone floor.  There were at least 40 women in various baths, and I gathered myself for the staring of at least one of them.

 

Nothing.

 

To my left was a row of tubs, each one deep and short (but about long enough for me).  With their cement and hollow steel handrails, they looked like tanks used to water cattle.  I quickly found one that was empty, with unoccupied tubs on either side.

 

I let myself sink into the gloriously hot, slightly bubbling water, dangling my painted toes out the other end.

 

Aaahhh.

 

I closed my eyes, breathing relief.

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

The journey here had been somewhat arduous.  I still underestimate the size of Shanghai—a map never does it justice.  It had appeared that the spa was in walking distance of the subway.  I expected to walk 10-15 minutes.  Unfortunately, there was massive construction happening along the main road.  Road signs were missing, or few and far between.  Pudong was not Puxi (my side of the river, the older part of Shanghai and more tourist-friendly).  I probably ended up walking around in circles, passing Muslim noodle shops and run down caves where you could get a haircut for under five dollars.  The construction overflow made piles of rubble, including glass and nails, as well as puddles that I had to skirt around.

 

After 20-30 minutes I gave in.  I had no idea where I was or which direction I needed to go, even with the map app on my smart phone.  I went to a busier street and flagged down a cab.  Luckily I’d printed directions to the spa in Chinese.  The cab ride was less than 10 minutes, but it was worth it.

 

The contrast inside the spa was startling.  The floors were pristinely clean, partly because you were asked to remove your shoes immediately.  The lobby was filled with small, pleasant ponds and plenty of comfy chairs.  Soft Japanese music—flute and harp, slow and tranquil—floated over my head like cherry blossoms.

 

The woman renting out pajamas was unable to explain anything to me in English, so we had a bit of an issue.  I had to get the pajamas from her, then go to another desk to get my bracelet (which I could scan for food or spa treatments, rather than carrying paper money), and then go into the locker room to change.  We figured it out, though.

 

Everything was pristinely clean.  Along with the p.j.s were disposable slippers, and the toilets had about 20 buttons.  There was plenty of t.p. and soap, and even small bottles of “seat disinfecting spray” in each stall.

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

A small section of baths (shallow, natural-looking pools) were outside, and I sat in the warm water, sinking my butt to the stones and leaning my back into the sunlight-warmed rocks behind me.  I had this area to myself.  Many Asian women are extremely fond of white skin.  They carry umbrellas in all weather to keep their skin spotless.  (My freckles must freak them out.)  They buy expensive whitening creams.  Sunscreen costs double or triple what it does at home.  And they certainly won’t sit in the sun.  But for me, sitting in my birthday suit in semi-privacy, in the hot water while sunshine cloaked my shoulders, was a fabulous novelty.  I had no qualms about adding to my freckle count.  Japanese music sank into me, relaxing my back and slowing my mind.

 

As I begun to realize that there’d be no staring, I happily immersed myself in hot pool after hot pool; a “milk bath” (actually tiny bubbles, lending the water a milky appearance); a super-hot bath, a warm bath, the stock tub baths.  There were old ladies and girls under 10; there were a few plump ladies, but mostly thin ones—the Asian frame tends to be quite petite.  Every size, every shape of lady was here, and although there was not the German “here’s my fat butt” attitude, I didn’t get the sense that there was anything Puritanical about the place, either.  No one seemed self-conscious.

 

There was a room where I gave myself a salt scrub, and a back area where I had my first seaweed wrap for 60 RMB (about 10 bucks).  The lady tried to tell me to sit on the table five times without miming it clearly, speaking louder each time, until I finally understood her.  After being coated with the blue-green stuff (like a clay mask), I was wrapped in a huge sheet of saran wrap. 

 

The room was hot and steamy.  My whole body throbbed and sweated as I stared at the ceiling or closed my eyes.  I think I almost fell asleep once.  I must’ve waited 30 minutes for the woman to come back.  The suspense was killing me, but I was also oddly relaxed.

 

After the baths and the wraps, I was warm and calm.  I’d been chugging water (as many signs around the spa recommended), and now it was relaxation room time.  I got some cookies and xiguazhi (watermelon juice) by scanning my bracelet (“Your money’s no good here,” I wanted to joke to someone).  I draped myself over a leather lounger—just like the 100 other men and women in the room.  Some were chatting quietly, some watching TV, some sleeping—one guy was even snoring, and I tried not to laugh as he snorted from time to time.

 

I had some ramen at the restaurant later, with a small bottle of sake, and felt pleasantly snug, serene, and perhaps even a bit Japanese.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

16 Oct. 2013


Come morning, Shanghai roars to life.  The horns from the busses, taxis, and cars merging at the intersection of Haining Lu and Henan Bei Lu make one constant hooooonnnnkkk!  Pollution begins to rise from the horizon up into the atmosphere.  Construction--the whine of the concrete saws, the zaps of welding, the teeth rattling sound of jack hammering, and the rumbling of big Japanese pavers--resumes.  As I head to work, crossing Qipu Lu, people intent on shopping push me aside, shouting to their friends or into their smart phones, stopping at the fruit stands for fresh-pressed pomegranate juice or cantaloupe on a stick.  Every other person drags a trolley laden with black plastic garbage bags, each one stuffed with cheap clothing and cheap shoes.  People eat as they walk and then toss their trash unceremoniously onto the street, scarcely caring if the vinegar from their dumplings ends up on your clothes.

When you live in a city that's, like, 90 times the size of your own, it's easy to think you'll never have a moment's peace again.  One thing that's great about my neighborhood in Shanghai is that after about 9 pm, the whole place shuts down.  Most of the stores on Qipu Lu are closed, the rumble of trolleys and the call of vendors silenced.  The streets are littered with the day's trash--skewers from street barbeque, half-full Styrofoam bowls of ramen noodles, watermelon rinds--but it's quiet.  Quieter than New York City, less quiet than Spokane.  There have been a few times when I walk home from the subway, from work, and I can actually hear crickets, softly chirping in the bushes.  It's past ten, and the sky is black, the surrounding buildings brightly lit, like stars.

My morning walks to the Bund have been like a renewal for me:  a reminder that yes, peace does exist in spite of Shanghai's chaos, that the water in the river still flows and that the lotus still blooms, even from the muck.

As if pulled by the same idea, I see couples taking their wedding photos there all the time.  Just two days ago, I saw nine different couples!  Other than the Catholic Church in Xujiahui , Waitan (the Mandarin word for the Bund), is the most popular spot in Shanghai for wedding pictures.  New beginnings.

I always see something interesting on my walks.  One morning I saw a man flying a kite, a black fish about five feet long, high up in the air.  Kite-flying is popular on the Bund, but this huge kite was the most amazing I've ever seen.

This morning, the interesting sights continued:  I saw four different groups of uniformed practitioners of martial arts.  The first group was in light pink, dancing slowly with their swords near the Monument to the Peoples’ Heroes.  It was all so beautiful that I paused on their stairs:  A breeze rippled the loose pink clothing, swirled the tassels on the hilts of each sword.  Seabirds glided over the Huangpu River; tourists walked by, some taking photos.  Each pose, each movement of the practitioners seemed Zen, unhurried, knowing that a consistent gentle push might be more persuasive than a hard shove.

Not wanting to disturb them, I did an about-face and descended the stairs.

Below the Bund is a small garden, twisting and turning paths woven into the trees.  There is even a small wooden bridge near a waterfall, with lotus and lilies blooming up from the ponds.  Latticework arcs overhead, woven with trailing vines and filtering the sunlight.  Classical Chinese zither music wafts from small portable radios.  Retired people are there every morning.  Some just sit, almost as if meditating or just allowing themselves to wake up.  Some do taijiquan or other light calisthenics.  Some stand and talk with one another, the men with wrists clasped behind their backs like old scholars, looking like they're trying to balance themselves between Confucius and Chairman Mao.

As I made my way through this garden, I could hear more music, flute this time, and spied two long lines of people practicing another form.  Tai chi?  Wushu?  Kung-fu?  I knew a lot of the names, but not enough about the forms to identify them quickly.  Their uniforms were white satin rather than pink, but they were just as graceful.  Carefully I edged around them, thankful they were without swords.

It's hard to believe that modern Chinese people still practice these ancient arts--thousands and thousands of years old--but it's still a part of them.  It makes me feel good to know that the Cultural Revolution wasn't able to take everything away. 

China seems to me to be a nation of survivors.  The battles between warlords in seemingly every dynasty; 60 years of invasions by the Mongols; World War II…I can understand why bamboo graces so much of Chinese art.  So strong it's used as scaffolding, Chinese bamboo can hold the weight of many men, but it can also bend in the slightest wind.  The Chinese talk about being descended from dragons, but sometimes I wonder if they didn't spring up out of the bamboo, ready to bend or to be strong, whatever the situation required. 

Unlike the first Americans, who took that bold step into the unknown--and escaped--the Chinese made a stand.  Perhaps, if they'd been living in Europe, surrounded by ocean in many cases, taking a boat far away would've made more sense.  Or perhaps they chose to stay.  I don't know enough about China or Chinese history to make a real guess.  I think both histories, in spite of their differences, should be revered, though.  It takes just as much bravery to start over as it does to stay; to try something new as it does to keep going through the daily grind.

I thought about how China had survived so much.  I thought about how America, in its own short history, had survived what it has so far.  Maybe both countries are made of survivors.  Perhaps stubbornly, perhaps foolishly, human beings just keep on going.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pop, pop, pop


I’m a firm believer that some of the world’s cutest kids are Chinese.  Even when they are a bit dirty and have split pants (the solution to no diapers, and probably a good preventative for diaper rash in China’s more humid climates).



It must be difficult for people to limit themselves to just one cutie per family, but 99.9% of my students say they are an only child.  The One Child Policy was implemented in the 1970s, and continues (with a few minor changes) into today.  According to the World Bank, China’s population growth rate is only 0.47%.

 

Yet Shanghai is a city of 23 million people--that's triple the population of New York City--and some of the most populated cities in the world are in China:  Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou are in the top ten.  How is this possible?

 

One Saturday morning, I saw eight children under the age of eight.  It was a sunny day, and parents and grandparents were out early to enjoy it with their children or grandchildren.  Later that same day, I counted four pregnant women without even trying.  In spite of all this cuteness, I found myself thinking One child policy, my ass.

 

China has the world’s largest population.  Period.  I’ve checked three sources.  Even china.org.cn admitted that 1.3 billion people lived in China in 2005--and China's not famous for honestly reporting statistics.  India has the second largest, followed by the U.S.—at a measly 350 million or so.  Pitiful.

 

Luckily, China is the world’s second largest economy (right behind the U.S.), but even three blocks north of me, there were people in Shanghai—“a modern city”—without indoor plumbing.

 

Speaking of water, The Economist calls China’s water use “unsustainable”, in spite of the fact that each person in China uses one-fourth the water that a person in the U.S. uses.  This is mostly because the water in China is excessively polluted (thanks to coal mining and water from industrial uses not being recycled).

 

The U.N. reports that China’s population will max out at a staggering 1.45 billion in 2030—right around the time the water runs out, and right around the time when India’s population is set to surpass China’s. 

 

The more time I spend in big cities (Athens, New York, Shanghai), the more convinced I am of the importance of caring for our environment--for preserving what we've got, especially in the Pacific Northwest.  People complain about rules and laws in the U.S.--environmental regulations, taxes, permits for fishing, camping, hunting--but the unregulated growth (in population and development) in China is destroying the place--to say nothing of how difficult it is for people to compete for jobs here.

 

I don't want my hometown to look like this!  I don't think telling people how many children they can have is right, either, but I'm not sure what the solution to such a huge population is!  As much as I enjoy my students, my job, and some of the nicer areas of this city, Shanghai is flat, crowded, polluted--overrun with people, concrete, cars, and noise.  I honestly don't think it's good for my health or my sanity to stay here for a third year.

 

Shanghai will keep going without me--building into the clouds, honking until it sounds like a symphony, and having some of the cutest babies in the world. 

Communication Breakdown


So this morning when I got to work, one of the SCs—Echo-- approached me and asked, “So, Heather, hi!  OPT questions.”

 

OPT stands for Oral Placement Test, and I’d conducted three of them yesterday. 

 

“Okay, hi.  What about them?”  I asked.

 

Echo and a CC—Sky--who’d approached looked at each other and back at me.  Sky said, “OPT questions.”

 

“Yes,” I nodded.  “Okay.  What about the OPT questions?”

 

Sky and Echo looked at each other again, spoke a few brief sentences in Chinese.  “OPT questions,” Echo said again, slower, as if translating.

 

“I know,” I said, a bit impatiently.  “I did three of them yesterday.  What do you want to know?”

 

They traded glances.  Chinese flew through the air.

 

“Uh…”  Sky said, smiling at me.  He looked at Echo and nodded.

 

“OPT questions…which ones…?”

 

“Oh!”  I said.  “Which ones did I use?”

 

They nodded eagerly.

 

“It depends,” I said.

 

They looked put out.  “It depends on the student,” I explained.  “I try to focus on their interests and get them to talk about what they know, what they like.”

 

“Oh!”  Sky said.

 

“Norhaine (my old boss) used to use the same questions every time.”

 

“Oh, Norhaine!”  Echo said.  She smiled and looked pleased.

 

“But I don’t use the same questions every time.”

 

Sky looked down at his shoes briefly.  I could tell my answer disappointed him.  The SCs and CCs are famous for giving students the complete PPT of lessons beforehand (if the student requests).  The result, however, is a student who memorizes the set responses.  If you go off script even once, many of these students give you a blank look.

 

The CCs (not the teachers, interestingly) are given some kind of bonus if their students progress at a certain rate, hence the “cheat sheets”.  But, as an educator, I don’t think they’re doing their students any favors by giving them lesson material ahead of time, or by trying to help them skip levels for no reason.  I once had a student who requested to change from a level 5 to a level 8.  No reason was given.  I very politely told her CC there was no way I’d approve such a change, as it would probably hurt the student more than help her.

 

An American woman I knew who worked with Disney English was told, straight up, to lie to the parents of her young students.  Bonuses were given to their staff (again, not to the teachers) as well if students moved up a level.  So students were often moved up.  The American woman told me many of the students were moved up to levels where they understood nothing.  If the parents wondered about this (“Why doesn’t Wang Junior speak English to me at home?”) the teachers were told to say “He speaks English to me in class just fine.”  This teacher ended up quitting before her contract was up, simply because the ethical implications bothered her too greatly.

 

My coworkers Sky and Echo had probably been hoping that I had a formula, a set list of questions—so that they could give them to students before the Oral Placement Test.  So that the students could memorize their answers and be placed in a higher level to start with.

 

But wasn’t the whole point of an OPT to test their English level as it stood at present?  Anyone can memorize answers.  It’s what I call “monkey work”.  As in, “Even a monkey could do it.”  I felt fairly confident that, given time and a cheat sheet, I could memorize answers in Chinese that could place me as an Intermediate speaker—although that is the farthest thing from the truth.  Just because I could “ape” Chinese didn’t mean I understood it.

 

And then there are the students who try to memorize the “rules” of English.  I have students who’ve studied English grammar for a decade or more.  To be honest, I haven’t.  As a high school English teacher, I didn’t harp on grammar.  Once a week I’d conduct a grammar mini lesson, and grammar was part of each student’s grade, but literature and its themes were always the focus of my classes.

 

My Chinese students often like to corner me and try to trip me up on grammar.

 

“Knowing grammar is one thing,”  I said yesterday, feeling embarrassed (and not for the first time).  “Your grammar knowledge is great.  Some of my students know even more about grammar than I do!”  It’s true.  I hate to admit it, but they do outsmart me sometimes.

 

I may not know the proper names of things (intransitive verbs and dangling participles, anyone?), and I may have a hard time explaining the more complex ones, but I rarely make any grammatical mistakes in my own speaking or writing.  I’m not perfect, but English is my mother tongue and I’ve been speaking it for 37 years.  No matter how well my students think they know grammar, in straight up conversation, they always make half a dozen mistakes—minimum.

 

“Knowledge is wonderful!”  I told them.  “But now you must apply it.”  And a few of them looked like they’d never considered this before.  Isn't the goal in life to memorize?  I swear some of them were thinking it.

 

Education in China, I’ve read and I’ve heard from my students, encourages sitting in silence, writing, reading, memorizing.  Speaking practice is often repeating, as a class, whatever the teacher says.  Thinking--or speaking--outside of the box is not encouraged.  It is even seen as a disciplinary problem, depending on the school’s administrators.  American students complain about the same problem in U.S. schools, but most teachers I know encourage questions and comments from students.

 

China is a country famous for luxury brand knock-offs (I saw a Colvin Kleln t-shirt today) and copies of Impressionist art that are almost spot-on.  I think China has a gift for this, and it has its place and its uses.  That place, however, is not in education, in my opinion, and especially not in a language school.