“The top priority of the Chinese school system is to bring in the future leaders of the world, and being able to indoctrinate them in a way that Oxford indoctrinates the future leaders of the world.” –Xueqin Jiang
The differences between the U.S. and Chinese education systems are evident. The Chinese system is driven by a student’s need to perform on the Gaokao, a two day college entrance exam taken during the high school years. The U.S. system, on the other hand, takes a somewhat more holistic view of primary and secondary education, while still being driven by mandated assessments.
In the Chinese system, an entire family’s life builds to the moment a student takes the Gaokao. Those two days can determine the future of not only the student, but their family as well.
The stakes are higher, and realer, than anything we can imagine in the United States. My goal here is not to fixate on the obvious differences between our two systems, which is the topic of much discussion, but rather to focus on what remains the same in teaching and learning between two often competing world superpowers.
During my time spent in Beijing exploring the culture of teaching and the modern Chinese worldview, two themes became apparent. First, China is enduring a period of remarkable growth and change. Global economic shifts are turning China into arguably the most influential economy in the world, with a sphere of influence expanding quicker than that of any other country. An attitude of incredible pride and optimism pervades much of the Chinese population. Never before in modern history have the cards been set so heavily in favor of the Chinese.
A second theme is pride in traditional culture. The Middle Kingdom is a nation with a richer history than most. As one college student at Beijing’s Renmin University politely put it, the culture and history of China, with millennia to its name, goes far deeper than some countries can even imagine. No argument here. Both ideas combine to form the central tenet of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” the nation’s goal of looking to build a stronger future in the 21st Century, while appreciating and giving due respect to a past brimming with beloved tradition.
The same can be said for education in China. The idea behind the Gaokao system in nothing new. High stakes exams have been commonplace in China since the imperial examinations of the Tang Dynasty, when government positions were given not by birthright, but by merit through proven proficiency in a series of rigorous evaluations open to the public. Within this education system rooted in Confucian tradition, however, there is certainly an eye to the future.
As part of our Fulbright-Hays Group Project, we had the opportunity to interact with many Chinese educators, visit different schools, and interact with students.
Some of the most eye-opening interactions we had were with leading figure in Chinese, and global, education reform, Jiang Xueqing. Jiang is an advocate for incorporating creativity and project based learning in Chinese education, and he has had success doing so.
With the goal of preparing students for the global workforce, Jiang works as a consultant helping Chinese schools to incorporate more student-centered learning into existing curriculum. One project Jiang spoke of to meet those goals was the creation of a student-led coffee shop on school grounds open to the public. The project not only gave students real work experience, but gave high school students the opportunity to design the physical shop, make real managerial decisions, and run a profitable business. Obvious setbacks aside, the project was wildly successful, and has been adopted at schools throughout China as a model for entrepreneurial STEAM based learning, two concepts that all U.S. educators truly appreciate for their real world value, as well as the difficulty of successful implementation.
That idea is not foreign to U.S. teaching. In fact, my own school, West York Area Middle School in York, Pennsylvania, recently adopted a similar student-led coffee shop model – the Bulldog Brew – led by a progressive minded colleague. Creativity in education is a global pursuit.
The hardships that face teachers in the United States are not absent from Chinese education. The difficulties teachers often face motivating students became clear when speaking to an English as a Second Language teacher at Beijing YuYuanTan High School. “Learning English is difficult,” she told a group of us. “Students do not want to learn the grammar rules needed to write and speak English.” As a middle school English teacher myself, I certainly empathized with this teacher’s plight, which must be greater than mine. The vast majority of my students are native English speakers, which cannot be said for her student population. How did this teacher overcome this obstacle? “I tailor my teaching to their needs,” she said. She went on to describe her use of formative assessment, but more interestingly, she described her use of differentiation, a driving force in current U.S. pedagogy. She described getting to know her students, and using their interests in assignments as a way of engaging them in their learning, as well as developing different learning tasks for groups of students based on their learning styles.
Although it may be a far reach to say that both of these individuals are the norm in the Chinese education system, they do reflect a cultural shift of preparing students to be successful in the future, looking beyond the daunting Gaokao to what is needed for success in the 21st Century.
One final similarity became clear through our dialogue with educators, and our interactions with Chinese students – teachers that really do care, and students that really do want to learn. Perhaps the highlight of my time spent exploring the Chinese education system was the opportunity to work with a small group of students at a middle school in Yuxian, Hebei Province. After an hour-long roundtable discussion of pedagogical differences with teachers at the school, we American teachers were each brought to a classroom where we would work with Chinese students for a 40 minute period.
What stuck out to me the most from my time playing English-Chinese Simon Says and other basic language-learning activities was the eagerness and the joy with which the students participated. Their eagerness to learn and grow, to understand the directions I was floundering so obviously to give them, and to interact with someone so culturally separated from what they knew, astounded me. I will forever have a place in my heart for my students in Yuxian.
Yes, China and the United States are different. Politically, we stand divided. Culturally, some differences are there as well. But we both strive to prepare our next generation for their future as best that we can. Like teachers passionate about bettering their craft for the sake of their students, like those students who possess an innate desire to learn and to grow, innovations in the art of teaching truly know no borders.
Language learning and teaching are the focus of my career, and learning a new language is one of my greatest joys in life. So it should be no surprise that I loved every moment of our Chinese classes (not to mention the additional tutoring sessions that I arranged!).
One of the aspects of Mandarin that struck me as different from English or any other European languages I know is its metaphorical relationships between time and space. (I’m just going to avoid discussing Japanese here because it exhibits some of the characteristics I mention below, but not with the consistency that I’ve seen in my limited exposure to Chinese.) As one example, the same character/morpheme is used to indicate front and past (前 qián). Similarly, the same character/morpheme is used for behind and future (后 hòu). To clarify:
前 qián = in front of
前天 qiántiān = the day before yesterday (= past)
后 hòu = behind
后天 hòutiān = the day after tomorrow (= future)
So, under this metaphorical system, the past is in front of you, and the future is behind you. This is logical if you think that you can clearly see the past but not the future–although I have no idea if any Chinese native speakers actually think this way. Of course, in English we also talk about the past as being “before” (= in front?) and the future as “after” (= behind?). Even so, from the perspective of a native English speaker, this metaphor is difficult to fully grasp.
What about other characters/morphemes that refer to both space and time? We’ve also got a character/morpheme that indicates both on top of and before/previous (上 shàng) and another that indicates both under and after/next (下 xià).
上 shàng = on (top of)
上周 shàngzhōu = last week
上午 shàngwǔ = late morning (“before noon”)
下 xià = under
下周 xiàzhōu = next week
下午 xiàwǔ = afternoon
This logic is much easier for a native English speaker to follow. Instead of thinking of time as passing from in front of you to behind you, now we visualize time as moving from top to bottom, much as you would picture a calendar or timetable.
I am looking forward to learning much more about the metaphors inherent in the Chinese language as I sit in on Chinese 101 at Gettysburg College in the fall and work with the Chinese learners to start up the Chinese Reading Club.
Gettysburg College’s Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad to Beijing has been a parade of wonders. We explored the Forbidden City, strode along the Great Wall, and climbed to the top of Xiangshan Park. Walking among the artifacts and architecture of China’s vast history is invaluable in our pursuit of understanding. Niall Ferguson eloquently made the case for studying history in Civilization: The West and the Rest (2012). He claimed that “the past is really our only reliable source of knowledge about the present and future. History is not just how we study the past; it is how we study time itself.” Our program has enabled us to travel spaces where history was made. At the same time, it has pushed us to ponder how that past reveals the possible paths from the present.
Perhaps no topic draws as much attention as the relationship between the United States and China. Several friends expressed sincere concern about my safety in Beijing, filled with anxiety resulting from tensions between the two nations. The same level of concern drew a crowd of at least one hundred to a small bookshop in the heart of the Western District of Beijing. The Bookworm hosted Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, a talk sponsored by the Young China Watchers. It is a group of Western professionals living in Beijing who share a common interest in the development of China. Russel drew from his experience and expertise to speak about the potential future shared by the world’s two superpowers.
One highlight of Russel’s lecture was a reference to the Thucydides trap, a foreign policy analysis advanced by Professor Graham Allison – and outlined in this text from Foreign Policy magazine. Thucydides was an ancient Greek historian who wrote about the conflict between Athens and Sparta. Allison holds that the Peloponnesian War was the first example of a conflict resulting from an emerging nation challenging the dominance of an existing power. Looking at the last 500 years, Allison cites 12 conflicts that have taken place during 16 similar scenarios. Foreign policy experts who align with Dr. Allison predict conflict between the United States and China in line with the prevailing pattern.
Assistant Secretary Russel refuted their claim by arguing that the United States is not in decline. He briefly referenced data, focusing on economics, to dismiss the Thucydides trap as a false frame given the current context. Mr. Russel was confident in his evaluation, and he has the first-hand experiences to provide credibility. Yet he left me unconvinced.
Empirical evidence aside, the perception that China is usurping America’s role as the most powerful nation is real. Popular media outlets, such as Forbes, regularly publish articles on the rise of China and decline of America. Politicians in the United States prey on the fears of Americans when they establish platforms around the need to fix a weakening nation. In my own classroom, students are expected to argue for or against the existence of American decline in the context of our study on the fall of ancient Rome.
Across the globe, meanwhile, we have heard from academics of varied backgrounds regarding the Chinese perception that recent decisions related to the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement and the Paris Climate Accords have opened the door for Chinese leadership on trade and the environment. Dr. Feng Naixiang, from the School of International Studies at UIBE in Beijing, shared data about Chinese economic development. Hard facts about the number of Fortune 500 headquartered in Beijing, 22, paled in comparison to his ardent enthusiasm that China is on a path to greatness.
On a smaller scale, we have had personal encounters to support the Chinese perception of their own status as a rising power. In the past week, we have visited two educational institutions that were driven by a mission defined by this “Chinese Dream.” The facilities themselves reflected a concrete financial commitment to education and advancement on the part of the Chinese. The sense of purpose of the staff at each site demonstrated even further the collective vision of China as a global leader.
At Beijing Foreign Studies University, we were welcomed by Professor Yu. She is the Director of the University Library, which finished construction in 2013. We discussed the design and function of campus libraries with her. We spoke about space for collaboration, networking with other universities, and partnerships between librarians and professors. In all regards, the philosophy here reflects the same best practices in place in America. The striking reality was the rapid speed at which China has been able to transform their vision into reality. The facility boasted large lecture halls, huge media centers, and a collection of resources spanning sixty languages. There were over 2,600 seats within the space – for a university that has just over 3,000 students. Director Yu was incredibly proud of the investment and prestige of the library, but even more passionate about its potential to increase the talent and trajectory of China. Professor Feng Yihan of Capital Normal University graciously arranged for our time, and he shared that much of the same success was taking place at his school as well.
Even more relevant to my own position in America was a visit to YuYuanTan Middle School. Our hosts rolled out a generous welcome, and it was clear the school was eager to display its accomplishments. We toured the remarkable facility, including a gorgeous calligraphy classroom and impressive makerspaces that housed 3-D printers, engineering stations, and digital labs. We walked through what can only be described as a school exhibition hall, where awards and achievements earned by the school were on professional display.
Far more impactful than the tour, however, was time spent with the faculty of the school. The teachers there, like so many of the educators we have encountered in China, are fervently committed to their work. In conversation after conversation, we heard about the long hours and the constant desire to improve. At YuYuanTan, teachers collaborate for two hours each week on improving lessons. They observe other classrooms using live video feeds. They attend trainings and workshops, often in pursuit of advanced credentials. The school is labeled as a model school, so the staff often host observers from across the city and Hebei provinces to model strategies.
All of this work is motivated by the same philosophy we encountered at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Educators expect excellence of themselves and their students because it is demanded by the perception that China itself must strive to fulfill its role as the “Middle Kingdom” and global leader.
In the United States – or at least New Oxford Middle School – there is sometimes a sense that education does not matter. Students and their families are at times frustrated by a world filled with challenges and change that they perceive as too much to manage. Perceptions of defeat result in attitudes defined by apathy and young people without passion or persistence.
Assistant Secretary Russel might have dismissed the “Thucydides trap” as invalid because it is based more on perception than reality. Educators have long acknowledged the power of perception through phenomenon such as the “Matthew Effect.” We know that attitudes shape behavior and determine outcomes. Whether Dr. Allison’s lessons from history regarding conflict resulting from shifting power differentials hold true, the Fulbright-Hays GPA participants can see the fight for momentum taking place in classrooms on either side of the globe.
Most people associate the Fulbright-Hays program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, as a mere funding source for scholars to be able to conduct research in other counties. The Group Project Abroad program is different: we are not scholars per se, but “participants” who engage in an intensive immersion experience focusing on a particular topic. In our case the topic is Chinese education, which in turn means this is really about China as a whole.
But whether one is an actual Fulbright scholar, or a GPA participant, there is a much deeper goal at stake here. The Fulbright-Hays is ultimately about cultural exchange and cultural understanding, and every Fulbright scholar or participant is in a sense a cultural ambassador. I do not think anyone can best the current group of professors and local K-12 teachers from the Gettysburg area on that score. I can not even begin to express how profoundly moving this entire experience has been for me personally, or for everyone else. I also cannot express how much I appreciate how every participant has approached this month-long experience in Beijing.
My situation is different from everyone else’s, since I have been to China before and I already speak the language (albeit with a very Taiwanese inflection, which Chinese here sort of love.) My own personal project was to revise my curriculum in a couple of classes regarding the rise of the Chinese market in cinema and its global impact. Just yesterday this culminated in a presentation I gave based on my findings and observations in Beijing. My teacher, Zhang Airui, has been simply amazing. She not only helped me with simplified characters (I had learned traditional characters in Taiwan), she also helped me find multiple sources regarding this issue. I now realize I already have my new lesson plan for my Global Media Industries course this fall, and I just need to translate it into English.
Yet what stands out for me is not this personal project; what stands out most of all are all the people we have encountered here — the unfathomable hospitality and friendliness we have been shown everywhere. No where was this more true than last weekend when we went to a remote area called Yuxian in Hebei Province. For two days we were the only white people around, and never did we experience what it is like to have a rock star. (It is a bit exhausting, to tell you the truth.)
However, I have to mention one person in particular — Nana. Nana was our incomparable local guide in Yuxian. She did not speak any English really, so translations were needed for most of the group. Nevertheless she was such a wonderful person to have around, very unassuming, very pleasant, very polite — just like most of the people here.
But once she figured out I could speak Chinese, we got to talking about a lot of things. On the last day in Yuxian we had a remarkable visit to a local middle school, and she suddenly made a comment to me, “You Americans are so funny and interesting! Us Chinese? We’re way too serious.” It then dawned on me that perhaps we were the first Americans she had ever encountered, and she probably had been nervous about the whole thing before we arrived, not knowing what to expect. That is when I told here, “Not all Americans are like these. Besides, the way everyone here has treated us — the way you have treated us — is simply remarkable. Don’t ever sell yourselves short.”
I had just given a gift to an English teacher at the school, so I added one more thing, “I have one for you too back on the bus. I just really appreciate everything you have done for us.” She looked at me, smiled, but then became so embarrassed, and said to me that I did not have to do this. Then she began crying and had to walk away.
She was deeply moved. I was also deeply moved by her unexpected reaction. Not long after we had our final banquet in Yuxian before heading back to Beijing. I realized she was still crying, and I had to explain to everyone else why. (Others teased me for somehow having “insulted” her.)
Of all the human moments I have had on this trip, that was the most human of all. So if anybody asks me again what the Fulbright-Hays is really about, my answer is now simple: “To meet people like Nana, and to cross boundaries that are more pours than most suspect.”
I will admit, I thought this blog post was going to be called “Enjoying the journey” but having just completed a 7.5 hour bus trip that should have only been a little less that 5 hours, the word “embracing” seems more appropriate.
These past few days have been a whirlwind. A few of us attended the flag raising at Tienanmen square Friday morning at sunrise (4:46 am!) and then our entire group left Beijing to head to the countryside of Hebei county to the village of Nuan quan and the city of Yuxian. I am sure people (Tony) in our group will blog about all of our incredible experiences these past few days. I want to take a bit of a different approach and look at our journey.
Too often we are focused upon the destination– what we are going to see and do and when that is going to occur. The journey becomes just a byproduct of the event. What I love though, is when you step back and take time to evaluate the actual path to the event, eyes can be opened to cultural attitudes and kindness of others.
Our journey to Tienanmen square Friday morning was rather eventful. Tony, Chloe, and I, decided (possibly crazily) to wake up around 3:20am to venture the daily flag raising at sunrise– in the pouring rain. The kindness started with our program director who woke up at 3am just to help us find a cab and had the cabbie waiting for us at 3:40am. She then continued to chat and check in on us to make sure we made it to destination–the driver dropped us off exactly where we needed to be (sometimes that can be an “exciting” moment given the language barrier) and we were immediately by an opportunistic businessman selling umbrellas, ponchos, and other rain gear. We followed the crowd to the underpass where we passed some time with all of the other people waiting to see the raising of the flag. For many Chinese, this is a pilgrimage for them– an important part of their culture. As we stood waiting, in the rain, I thought about just that. I mean, we had an excuse to stand in the rain– crazy tourists. But to see the willingness and pride of the people was powerful. Had I been focused on simply the flag raising I would have missed the patience of people in the sea of umbrellas and the swelling national pride. There was a comradely of sorts in the crowd and we were able to be included in a small part of that.
Later, our entire group boarded a 39-seater (math geek here– I love the fact that there were 39 seats, and not 40 seats, on the bus) and we ventured to the village of Nuan quan. The first leg of our trip was uneventful, but then the skill of our driver started to emerge as he managed to maneuver the bus through tight corners, dirt roads, and narrow bridges. At one point, the road we were supposed to take had a large pile of dirt on it, closing the road, and after much misdirection we seemed to be at an impasse. The closing of the road by a pile of dirt did not seem to be out of the norm, but rather something that may be a routine occurrence. Cue the kindness of locals. A few people showed up on scooters to help us navigate the streets to find the best path to the village. At one point we even all exited the bus to lighten the load so that the engine didn’t scrape as we went over a bump! Again, the willingness and kindness of the people, to help a bunch of foreigners navigate to the village and the pure confidence and skill of the driver shined through on this trip!
Finally, what would the trip home be without an adventure as well? It started out smoothly, but about thirty minutes in, as we approached the weigh station, traffic came to a standstill. It seems that one of the coal trucks was overweight, argued about the fine, which then caused a stir among the officials, who decided to double and triple check every vehicle, causing a traffic jam of all traffic jams! As we sat for more than two hours, waiting, (through a dust storm and rain storm as well), I contemplated how a small action, not wanting to pay a fine, can have a powerful rippling effect! I also watched our driver talk to many of the truck drivers, join forces with them to create enough space for us to squeeze through, get back to the correct lane, eventually move through the weigh station, and be on our way home again. It would have been easy for the many people stuck for hours to become frustrated and hostile with each other, tired and wanting to be on their way, but instead they stood in the street talking and laughing with each other and helping us be on our way again. Although I am not sure any of these trips went exactly as planned, each one provided a glimpse of the culture, kindness, and local flavor of China!
One book I use in social studies refers to the United States as a developed nation and China as a developing nation, a bit of terminology employed in several fields. The term has a formal definition and characteristics, but it is – in essence – a subtle way to elevate the United States over China on a hidden hierarchy. Labeling China as a developing nation is a way to mark them as less than Western nations, allowing us to maintain a sense of superiority.
Our activities in China have revealed, however, that the Chinese do not view themselves as inferior. Again and again, we have seen Chinese pride on public display. China surely recognizes its present position as an emerging superpower. At the same time, its people afford equal respect to past accomplishments. History and destiny are closely intertwined in their perspective.
On Friday, a small group from the Gettysburg College Fubright-Hays GPA departed from Capital Normal University on an early morning adventure. As we walked out of the lobby at 3:40am, the night staff was quietly snoozing behind the desk. It was a stormy morning, but we braved the rain and dark to catch a cab. We were off to see the sunrise flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square.
The ritual itself was quite patriotic. Dozens of soldiers stood at attention or paraded across the square. A color guard raised the flag with military formality while the anthem of the People’s Republic blared in the background. A nation’s treatment of its symbols reflects the respect it accords itself. Based on the gravity of this moment, China demands great respect indeed. Yet it was the crowd that left the most vivid impression. Despite the dark and stormy morning, the Square was filled with observers. Visitors crowded the entrances and rushed to the barriers, forming a solid wall of umbrellas. Nor were these foreign tourists. In fact, we did not see another Western face in the audience. It was the Chinese people themselves honoring a modern tradition and the nationalism it presented.
Tiananmen Square is in the heart of Beijing, flanked by the National Museum and the Great Hall of the People. Some might argue that patriotism is fitting in such a location and reveals little about the culture of the Chinese in general. After a weekend excursion to the countryside of Hebei province, the Gettysburg group had little reason to doubt that China’s pride pervades far beyond the capital.
We went to Yuxian County, about five hours west of Beijing at the edge of Hebei province. Driving through mountain tunnels, flat farm fields, and narrow country roads, we entered a vastly different world. We knew we were far from the urban setting of Beijing when we had to unload the bus so that it could creep over a ditch on the small earthen lane we had to travel in order to enter our destination. We were not upset, though, since we were able to take in the striking landscape that reminded us of Adams County back home.
In the town of Yuxian itself, we toured the Yuzhou Museum. It may seem odd to travel across the globe to walk air conditioned exhibition halls rather than the streets themselves. Regardless, our hosts were so proud of the history on display and the exhibition space itself that we simply would not have been able to refuse. In the end, the visit was worth the time. I was awed by the space and its collection, which would have rivaled national institutions in America. Our guide reported that the museum was considered one of the top three county-level facilities in all of China. The docents were rightfully proud as they moved us through the history of Yuxian. Our liaison from The Courtyard Institute explained that all students are expected to learn about county history, and that regular visits to the museum are part of that curriculum.
We visited temples and historic landmarks in Yuxian, yet it was a more unique bit of history in neighboring Nunquan that captured our hearts. When first entering the city, a visitor will notice a strange discoloration above the gate. It is not a flaw in the stone or a mistake in construction. It is a consequence of a centuries-old tradition. To mark the Chinese New Year, Nunquan performs the dashuhua. Local artisans heat iron and water to incredible temperatures, upwards of 1300 degrees Celsius. Using special techniques, they then throw the molten iron at the gate, spraying sparks in a brilliant display that put common fireworks to shame.
Performers take the stage at Yuxian during the Dashuhua showThe custom has grabbed the attention of a broader audience than the townsfolk themselves. Recognizing the appeal of the spectacle, the town has built an elaborate theater to hold performances each weekend. A show was designed around the story that inspires the tradition, a dramatic tale about two local youth deeply in love but divided by tragedy. The performance combines elements of a Disney movie with a Vegas show. There are fountains of water, projected animations, automated set pieces, acrobatics, dancing, chorus lines, and lasers. At one point, a herd of sheep is chased across stage. Though the audience senses the story and show are simply preambles to the climactic sparks of the dashuhua, it is gripping nonetheless. The performers display skill and dedication. More than that, they showcase the region’s history. The theatrics include reference interweave the traditions of the region and the plot of the story.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics were viewed by many, within China and abroad, as an opportunity for the People’s Republic to display its power on a global stage. In the exhibits of the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, the goal of their time as host city was explicit. In the grandeur of the venues themselves and in the crowds streaming through Olympic Village, the successful achievement of China’s effort is undeniable.
Though built on a massive scale, the Olympic venues are but one piece of a much larger effort in China. At all levels, the Chinese are striving to communicate their accomplishments and inspire their people. The flag-raising at Tiananmen is a national display, the county government of Yuxian built the Yuzhou Museum, and the local village of Nunquan has elevated the dashuhua to the stage.
Outsiders make a grave error if they assume economic power or nationalism are the sole focus of modern China. The people and places we have encountered are every bit as proud of their history, culture, customs, and traditions. The Chinese are proud of their civilization. Their pride reaches all the way to the classroom. At a school in Yuxian, we met several local educators. One young, idealist teacher describes the 12 and 13 hour days he regularly dedicated to his students. He noted the sacrifices his investment in education demanded, including havingto move his mother from her family home in Inner Mongolia so that she could watch his son in Yuxian. When we asked him what motivated him to push so hard, he alluded to the needs of the children and of China. He wants them, individually and collectively, to achieve the excellence he knows is possible.
As an ESL and Spanish teacher, I am fascinated by language. How it works. How it’s connected to the way we process information. How it shapes our thoughts and our perspective of the world. How we shape the parts of our mouth, throat, nose, and vocal cords to produce various sounds. And how difficult it can be to change all of that through the process of learning a new language.
What I’m looking to get out of this trip—other than a more sophisticated palate for donkey meat and scorpion—is to better understand what English Leaners (ELs) from China are coming from as far as language (in both Mandarin and English) and cultural background. In other words, what can I do as an ESL teacher to better serve the needs of Chinese ELs who move to America, have to learn English, and have to integrate themselves into our educational system and culture?
Our typical day begins with two and a half hours of Chinese class. Let me tell you, after 5 years of Latin, 3 years of French, and a B.A. in Spanish…MANDARIN IS DIFFICULT. And so is learning through the rapid-fire delivery method that characterizes Chinese teaching. We’ve been learning all the basics like introductions, food, bargaining, telling time/date, transportation, and family words in addition to the phonetic system that includes challenging tones.
If you didn’t know, Mandarin has two written forms: pin yin, which uses the Latin alphabet, and the characters, the sole written form for thousands of years. The characters originated from the cave-like drawings that ancient civilizations carved into bone or etched into stone. Over time the shape and complexity of the characters changed, and Chinese even split off into different writing systems. In fact, what are known as the “traditional” Chinese characters are unintelligible to most mainland Chinese who use “simplified” characters. Because the characters have NO relation to the pronunciation of the words, they must be memorized. Therefore, literacy was in the hands of the elite—those that could afford education—for millennia. Even though society has changed in more recent history with public education diffusing literacy to almost 100% of the population, the non-phonetic nature of the characters has not. Students are still forced to memorize, memorize, memorize—an aspect that has seeped into mainstream educational strategies. One new thing I’ve learned about language is how it affect a society’s educational methods as well.
I say Chinese is difficult, but we aren’t even learning the characters yet! Apart from a couple homework assignments and a calligraphy class yesterday, our focus has been on learning pin yin. Pin yin was invented in the 1950s to ease the burden of learning the Chinese language. Even Chinese children will learn the pin yin first, then add on the characters afterwards. Although pin yin shares our alphabet, it doesn’t use all 26 letters, and not all of the sounds of the letters are the same (for example, “q” sounds like “ch”). Plus, there are some sounds that don’t exist in English, despite using a romanized alphabet to represent the sounds.
And then there’s the tones. There are four tones and one neutral tone in Mandarin (and even more in Cantonese) meaning that mā, má, mă, mà, and ma are all different words. Even with the tones, Chinese is more phonologically limited than other languages which means that words that are pronounced the same and spelled the same in pin yin can have different meanings and different written characters. For example, tā can mean “he” or “she” when pronounced, but the character for “he” (他) is different than for “she” (她).
On top of the phonetical difficulties, the grammar is considerably different. It does not follow the same rules as English and has some added “particles” and “measure words” that indicate various grammar aspects but are untranslatable into English.
I hope I’ve made my point clear.
All in all, our group has some very intelligent and motivated people, so we are learning a lot! In two weeks, we went from barely knowing anything to being able to follow classroom directions, order food, barter, and have very basic conversations (that is, if our pronunciation is understood). We have an energetic teacher who may, at times, make class feel overwhelming, but definitely never boring.
So far, learning Mandarin has not only given me more language skills, but it has helped me get a small glimpse of language from the Chinese perspective as well as reminded me of strategies that both help and hurt in the second language acquisition process. Tune in next time for a reflection on foreign language learning pedagogy!
I have been pondering time a lot these past few days. I mean, I live by time– schedules of when I am supposed to be here or there, what given day of the week it is, how many days do I still have to enjoy Beijing– even in Chinese class we learned the phrase for “come earlier” (zao4 dao4 I think!). We are surrounded in a culture that not only revolves around time, but also by how much we can cram into a given amount of time.
And then there are reminders like this week. The first was at the Bejing Opera house on Sunday evening. We saw a drumming and dancing performance by a Taiwan dance company. There were moments of vigorous and disruptive movement and then there were moments of exact precision and meditation. It created a paradox for me– the impatient westerner could not understand how it could take 3 minutes to push a drum on the stage; the awed cultural stranger was amazed at how each step mattered. Each movement was specifically crafted for a purpose and that purpose was meditated on as the movement occurred. The “in-the-moment” focus of the performers was amazing and convicting.
The other timeless moment for me occurred today at the Temple of Heaven. These past few days especially we have been on the go– Sunday to the Buddhist and Confucius temples and opera house, Monday to the Summer Palace, Tuesday with many classes and lectures, and then today to the Temple of Heaven and Pearl Market. It makes sense– we want to see as many things as possible while we are here in Bejing– and yet the hustle and craziness of it can be exhausting. Today the focus at the Temple of Heaven was the center of the park– from the Circular Mound Alter to the Hall of the Prayers for Good Harvest– there was the typical vast amount of visitors. And don’t get me wrong– these places were amazing (my math mind was specifically drawn to the symmetry of the place). But then, a few of us decided to wander off towards the west side of the park into the Rose Garden and 100 flowers garden. In those places, there was timelessness. The bustle of people disappeared. The need to hurry and see every possible thing– erased. Instead, these gaps were filled with the sounds of strange and new birds, laughter of local women sitting under the terraces, enjoying time with each other, a gardener on a bicycle singing as he pedaled to his next place to work, the beauty of thousands of roses blooming of a multitude of colors. Time, for those few moments in that park, stood still. For me it was a reminder of many things– to find the small, to find the stillness, nestled within a city of more than 24 million people, to appreciate this gift of a month in city halfway across the world, and to look forward what our time here, this next week and a half, still has for us. And on that note, it is time for bed!
Throughout the spring, I rarely spoke about my participation in Gettysburg College’s Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad. I am a humble young man. So I like to think. My friends might label me as secretive instead. When these same friends learned that I was traveling to China, the first reaction was excitement. After the initial thrill waned, a common follow-up question emerged. Everyone wanted to know why I was going. To my chagrin, I found it was not an easy question to answer.
Once I arrived in China, the question persisted. Each participant shared a project proposal during the pre-trip seminars. In Beijing, however, we were having quiet conversations amongst ourselves. What outcomes did we aspire to? Nearing our mid-point, I now find myself much clearer about the lessons I will take back to Pennsylvania.
The mission of the Fulbright-Hays program is to “support overseas projects in training, research, and curriculum development in modern foreign languages and area studies for teachers, students, and faculty engaged in a common endeavor.” From Fulbright’s inception in 1948, the underlying goal has been to build a mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people from around the globe.
In the two weeks we have been in Beijing, my understanding of the Chinese people has deepened immeasurably. Our immersion in the culture has been total. For example, we visited the National Centre for the Performing Arts to view “Sword of Wisdom,” put on by Taiwan’s U-Theater group. Considered a modern masterpiece of architecture, the opera house is a concrete display of the re-emergence of Chinese culture in Communist China. Its juxtaposition to the Great Hall of the People is a statement about the pride taken in China’s culture.
Taking in the scenery of the theater was influential on its own, but the show itself was even more impactful. The performance echoed aspects of East Asian culture we encountered earlier in the trip. The wooden percussion drew me back to our visit to the Drum Tower, and the Gurdjieff sword movements resembled the Tai Chi movements we practiced. Even the sparse set pieces on stage pushed the audience to imagine the walls and towers common across historic China.
There were new lessons to learn at the theater as well. Several moments in the performance would be unlikely in an American opera house. The Artistic Director of the U-Theater, Liu Ruo-Yu, believes that “through meditation, one is able to reflect and maintain an inner calmness amidst this kaleidoscopic world.” Her philosophy was on display in movements that were graceful and deliberate. Several scenes, including the performers twirling in place at the close, were extended for long moments. Yet the audience sat enraptured. The one or two flickerings of cell phones were notable for their rarity. Chinese culture seems to place a value on precision that is less accepted, let alone celebrated, in America.
The Great Wall of China is one of the best-known sites in China. It is little surprise, then, that it was flooded with visitors from across China and across the world. We encountered more English-speakers at the Mutianyu section than we have anywhere else. Amidst the torrent of tourists, there was time for reflection. Staring out at the wall stretching off into the horizon, it was hard not to think about the power of a civilization that could construct such a wonder. At the same time, it is a legacy built on vulnerability. One of our participants questioned why the Wall was even necessary nestled among such formidable mountains. The regular attacks against China by outside invaders, such as the Mongols and the Manchus, necessitated it. The culture of China has been heavily influenced by this need to protect itself through strength.
The Yonghegong Temple, a Buddhist lamasery, was the next cultural destination we explored. Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, are difficult for those steeped in Judeo-Christian traditions to connect with. Venturing through the sacred site struck many of us quite deeply. The Chinese who surrounded us performed incense-burning rites and ritual kneeling to the Buddhas in the pavilions. Quiet, solitary acts of supplication are unlike the communal worship so common in Western religions. Witnessing the exercise of Buddhist religion firsthand has helped cross the cultural divide.
For most of us, it’s quite natural to approach a situation from our own individual point of view. We routinely make sense of what we see [and] what we hear… based on what we already know from lived experience. Yet, the filter of our own perception, while helpful, can also block valuable information. Unless we intentionally seek out other perspectives, we risk tunnel vision or narrow-mindedness.
As both a language arts teacher and a social studies teacher, I have a responsibility to guide students to seek out the perspectives of others. I must help them broaden the lens through which they see the world. The exploration of Chinese culture undertaken through the Fulbright-Hays Seminar will support that effort since it has helped me do so myself.
I have discovered far more tangible ways our time in Beijing will shape my professional work as well. After seeing the Wall, touring the temples, and all the other experiences we have had during project, I am more aware of and engaged in China’s influence on the world stage. Texts, news releases, and resources I might otherwise have glanced over now have newfound relevance and urgency.
In April 2017, the National Council for the Social Studies published a piece in Social Education about China’s Rapid Economic Rise. I read it and was intrigued, especially since I knew I was to be traveling to China. Yet I finished the article and moved on. After sitting through Dr. David Moser’s lecture on the Four Modernizations, ridden on the new subways, and wandered about the Olympic Village, the accomplishments described in the article resonate as they did not before. I now feel compelled, and competent enough, to use the text with my students.
Moser’s talks and our visits to sites like the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition infuse additional meaning to resources I have noticed while here as well. The Week magazine’s article on 10 June about “China’s Plan to Run the World” was one. Another is that PBS is about to release a series on The Story ofChina since, according to the website, China is “the new superpower, a country we all want to understand now.” A month ago, I may have let the notification pass by. Now, I have the personal connections to better understand the important story PBS promises to deliver. All are resources that I can directly build into the curriculum of my courses at New Oxford Middle School.
Our adventures across Beijing have introduced new sources to include instruction as well. In seventh grade social studies, I work with students to understand the Enlightenment. At the Confucian temple we traveled to on Sunday, there was a traditional museum-style exhibition. Unlike many of the sites we have toured, the exhibition was translated into English. One section of the hall was devoted to the influences of Confucianism on Western thought. A series of panels described how Marco Polo and Matteo Ricci brought Confucian principles to European thinkers emerging from the Middle Ages. The museum had an entire plate explaining the relationship of Voltaire’s work to Confucius’ ideas. It was a provocative piece that is not included in the traditional textbooks of public schools. I eagerly anticipate using the information as a source for my students to analyze in order to consider events from a new perspective.
I am sure that when I return to friends and family in America, the first request I will face is to share pictures from the trip. I have little doubt that as I flip through my favorite photographs, the conversation will quickly turn to what I learned. Though I might not have been able to form a coherent answer before I set out on this adventure, or even during the first whirlwind days, I am confident now that I will be ready to respond.