Snapshots of a Semester in China

Brian Taylor

May 01, 2011

Chinese people—at least the ones here at Xiamen University—love to snap photos, and they'll often recruit me as an "extra" because of my (still-rare) Western face. They'll crowd around me, flashing exuberant peace signs. Sometimes I wonder about the afterlife of those photos: How am I circulating? What do they think when they see my fortyish professorial visage?

Before I left for my Fulbright semester in China, I agreed to write about it for The Chronicle, but China presents what we in the English department might call a "crisis of representation." The country is so vast and so mutable that any attempt to describe it seems facile. Taking a cue from the hordes of campus photo-snappers, then, I've chosen to capture just a few images, with the caveat that they are (like those photos of me) necessarily partial and out of context.

So, as photographers here would put it, yi, er, san:

Snapshot 1. It is my first day of teaching the "History of American Poetry" to second-year master's students. I have no idea what to expect. I've heard that Chinese students tend to be passive and imitative, and that their oral-language skills might be limited. I've brought in two American poems about China: Billy Collins's "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles" and James Wright's "As I Step Over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor."

In class, we discuss the possibility of empathy across time and space, agreeing genially that it is entirely possible. Then my students point out—very politely—that Song Dynasty poems do not have titles; the "length and clarity" that Billy Collins admires is actually because the verses are identified by their first lines. With great facility—and zero passivity—the students quote from Song Dynasty poems and explain the complications of their forms.

They then contemplate the connotations of those American poems. One student notices that Wright's poem was written in the early 1960s. "Was he concerned with the historical situation of the time, with civil rights and the Vietnam War?" The student is, of course, correct to ask: Wright became a political activist in the later 1960s, and while I'd never read "As I Step Over a Puddle" politically before, I see the state of the Cold War nation in his imagery of a dark, flat Midwestern river. The student has helped me to read the poem in a new way.

Subsequent teaching days confirm my sense that Chinese students work twice as hard as—no, make than 10 times as hard as—American students, and that there is nothing passive about their effort. That impresses me deeply. Even though the content of their education is controlled by the state, it is not possible to study 10 hours a day without becoming, on some level, an active, inquisitive thinker. On the other hand ...

Snapshot 2. I am holding office hours in the library coffee shop, an airy enclosed porch with canvas awnings and wicker chairs. Black-and-white birds fly in and out, hunting for crumbs. I'm chatting with a student—I'll call him K—who wants to know all about my life.

Chinese people are not shy about asking personal questions, so I find myself blathering on about my suburban childhood and faux-boho adolescence. K is astonished that my memories are so focused on friends and leisure activities. "Chinese people don't have a childhood beyond age 8," he tells me. "We have to study all the time, or we won't get a good score on the Gaokao."

The Gaokao is an exam that controls if, and where, a student can pursue higher education. It is the sole focus of almost every Chinese family—most of whom only have one child. "We don't express ourselves in high school like you did," the student told me. "We're all the same. We're all just studying."

And later K confesses: "I still have nightmares about the Gaokao."

I tell him that I admire the Chinese work ethic. I cite the example of our 10-year-old neighbor downstairs from the apartment where I am staying. Every night, as our family watches bootleg DVDs of The Big Bang Theory, that little girl practices her piano—endlessly, relentlessly, and very loudly indeed. Often, she's still at it when we go to bed.

"Her parents are forcing her," says K. He laughs. "My parents did the same thing. I hated that piano!"

That surprises me. I'd assumed that the girl was practicing voluntarily. Even if she's not, she's improving very fast. My kids take piano lessons, but they're still on "Scarborough Fair" after several years.

So is the educational system in China just plain better? Yes and no. In 2010, Chinese students stunned the world by outperforming every other nation on a standardized test of academic skills. One former U.S. Department of Education official even evoked Sputnik, suggesting that Americans should play educational catch-up with the Chinese. After teaching here, I am forced to agree that Americans don't work hard enough, and I include myself and my children in that "we."

But I also think it's hopeless: We can't catch up with the Chinese when it comes to standardized tests, because we won't—for various complicated cultural and historical reasons—make the necessary sacrifices. For Chinese people, government-run examinations have been the only possible route to upward mobility since the Han dynasty. Americans, by contrast, have been able to follow many different roads to success—including, say, dropping out of college to found Microsoft.

It's not a question of "catching up." American and Chinese students are simply not racing on the same road. Our economies, our schools, and even our families are organized on different models. On nice days, I let my children go to Xiamen's sandy beach on the South China Sea. They're usually the only school-age kids there; everyone else is presumably studying. My kids sleep well after a day full of ice cream and sand castles. They might drop a few SAT points, but they won't have as many nightmares.

Snapshot 3. I decide to teach my students Allen Ginsberg's famous countercultural poem "Howl." Before I came to China, I thought there might be restrictions on what I could teach or say, but I've learned that the authorities are more sophisticated than that. As a Fulbrighter, as long as I don't try to actually organize anything I can say whatever I want.

I worry, though, that the poem's explicit homosexual images might alienate my students. In China, homosexuality is still barely discussed and only very recently decriminalized. So I craftily tell students: "Back when 'Howl' was published, many people in the United States were ignorant about homosexuality. They even thought it was a choice or a psychiatric condition! Isn't that outrageous?" My students shake their heads, assuming an air of cosmopolitan outrage, and I feel a twinge of triumph.

Indeed, the class delves into the poem with greater professed sympathy for Ginsberg's homosexuality than many of my (mostly Roman Catholic) students in the United States. China remains a conservative country, but its urban young people don't want to seem provincial or backward. I'm the teacher, so they'll follow my lead.

As we discuss the opening lines of the poem, though, it is I who begins to feel provincial. Ginsberg emotes: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked." I have to stop and explain that, of course, that is all metaphorical and that Ginsberg was a middle-class kid from Jersey who attended Columbia University. I become acutely aware that I am talking to students whose parents and grandparents—Ginsberg's contemporaries—were quite possibly literally starving during the Cultural Revolution. But if their relatives were hysterical, they kept it mostly to themselves. They had to endure silently to survive.

I also find myself explaining, later in the poem, that when Ginsberg calls himself a "supercommunist" he is kidding, in a way. He's a leftist, but that means something different in America. It's his way of signaling his opposition to the Cold War. It's more of a ... theoretical position.

I flounder, and my students laugh. I start to feel a bit embarrassed for Ginsberg, and for myself. I recall, a little guiltily, how I myself wore a Communist fist on my army jacket in 10th grade. Americans can be so self-dramatizing.

Then, near the end of class, I show a clip from Ginsberg's obscenity trial scene, as depicted in the James Franco movie Howl. J.W. Erlich (played by John Hamm) delivers a rousing defense of free speech in his closing argument, insisting that no society can be free if it does not allow people to write and speak the truth. At the end of the speech, my Chinese students burst into spontaneous applause.

That reminds me that "Howl" might not be so frivolous after all. Chinese people are more free now than they've been in several generations, but many of them remain acutely aware of the paternalistic limitations imposed upon them by their families and by the government. Their Confucian heritage stresses filial piety, so they tend not to be noisily rebellious in the Allen Ginsberg mode, but that does not mean they are complacent or content.

Snapshot 4. This one is of me, a Midwestern American professor. I look more or less the same as I did six months ago, apart from a grown-out dye job.

But I've changed. Among other things, China has made me appreciate anew the power of American literature. A poem like "Howl," which feels dated and lugubrious to many of us professors, still has the power to inspire young people whose freedom of expression is constricted.

Still, my Chinese students—all beautifully bilingual—have also made me more conscious of our (and specifically my) self-indulgence and sense of entitlement. America has never been a nation of single-minded standardized test-takers or compulsive piano-players, and maybe that's a good thing. But in the past, American reformers, pioneers, and poets (including Ginsberg, though he'd deny it) managed to be both imaginative and industrious. Surely we can learn, or relearn, the value of hard work—if not from China, then from our own history.

Angela Sorby is an associate professor of English at Marquette University. She is spending a semester teaching American literature in China on a Fulbright.