31 October 2007

China Diary, 1988: The Inscrutable West

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my better-illustrated WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

One of my Chinese students wrote:

"Play baseball must have two group and each one have nine person. They stand in the place and play the ball. One group is throw the ball to the other group. The other group must approach the ball and fielding the ball. Before the ball coming you must watch the ball because you must keep it."

I corrected the grammar but didn't worry about the ideas. It's hard to explain baseball in ten minutes, even when you have a blackboard to work with.

You don't have to understand baseball—or cricket or rugby or Aussie rules or American football—to master basic English. But when you teach English abroad, someone is bound to ask you what it means to strike out, throw someone a curve, or be out in left field.

I don't feel too confident myself explaining cricket phrases like "sticky wicket," and I'm even foggier about what the Hong Kong newscaster means when he says "Pakistan are 396 for seven in the third day of play" in a Commonwealth cricket tournament.

To our students in Zhongshan, the eating habits of English-speaking peoples are at least as peculiar as their sports—and more essential to understand, especially when many will go to work in the local visitor industry.

A few examples from our role-play in class illustrate:

Teacher: "I'll take your chicken and pineapple salad."
Student: "What kind of dressing would you like on it? We have oil, vinegar, French, Italian, Russian, and British."

Eating raw vegetables tossed with dressing is a foreign notion in China. Lettuce, called "raw vegetable" (sheng cai), is abundant in the markets. But our students asked, "Have you ever eaten it raw?" We never did there.

Teacher: "I'll take the French onion soup, the roast beef medium rare, and apple pie for dessert."
Student: "And what kind of sandwich would you like?"

Our students figure a complete meal should include at least one item under each major section of the menu, just as a complete Cantonese meal might include a soup, a poultry dish, a seafood dish, a meat dish, and a vegetable dish. And they don't usually measure the size of a meal by the number of helpings eaten. They count the number of dishes served.

Teacher: "I'd like a beverage with my meal. What do you have?"
Student: "Tea, Coke, Sprite, cognac, and brandy."

A common sight in restaurants in Zhongshan, even at breakfast, is a bottle of liquor in the middle of the table. Having "wine" (usually translated jiu, meaning any kind of alcohol) with a meal is not a foreign idea, but the fine distinctions among the types of alcohol usually drunk before, during, or after a meal in the West require some explanation.

Typical American classroom culture is also hard for students in China to understand.

After hearing in a listening comprehension talk that young Alfred Hitchcock went to strict schools, one student asked, "What other kind is there?"

Chinese students are usually highly motivated and don't expect the kind of song-and-dance routines that American teachers employ to try to keep their barely interested students from being disruptive or falling asleep. But Chinese students do doze off during long lectures, and most of their classes are long lectures.

In addition to passively listening, the students memorize and recite, read and translate. It takes a lot of work to get most of them to absorb and present information without memorizing it, to answer questions in their own words, or to participate in a seminar-type class.

As one Chinese essayist in China Daily observed, "stuffing students' heads full of knowledge is by no means the best way" to educate them. The writer, obviously a radical revisionist, advocated less reliance on lectures and more reliance on seminars and directed research.

Still, the examination system in China has for centuries tested memorized knowledge, and classroom initiative has for centuries come from one source—the teacher—even if heads do nod from time to time.

UPDATE: Basketball has certainly become more scrutable in China in over the past two decades (via Language Hat).

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