This installment contains the latest from our three-day visit to Xinglong County, train ride through countryside, student classes, and teacher training, also the wish: May our countries be friends forever.
Xinglong County is about 2 hours by train from Beijing , and is surrounded by beautiful, rugged mountains in Hebei province. It is obvious by the layering of the rocks that this mountain area used to be seabed, but now the valleys and mountains contain mostly rural communities, farms, and factories. One wonders if Beijing can possible expand this far. Given the rate it is going, anything is possible.
Our early morning train ride began at 7:15, and we boarded the crowded train with our Phelex Foundation "guides/mother hens" Feng Wei (aka Derek) and Ms. Tan Hua. We squeezed onto the train along with several thousand Golden Week vacationing families who carried great baskets of food, playing cards, and books to tide them over on their longer trip to Chengde, a famous vacation spot, 4 hours from Beijing . We joined the amused onlookers watching the strength-of-stocking demonstrations energetically conducted by intrepid traveling stocking salesmen, and enjoyed watching the moveable feast. Chinese trains are equipped with boiling water taps, so fresh noodles and hot tea are a staple of these long trips. Soon we were joined by Li Yan (aka Christina) and her boyfriend/fiancée Kevin. Li Yan would be our translator for the presentations.
The ride was a glorious peek at life along the rails, outside the cities, in the developing but still rural countryside. Every hillside was terraced, with many orchards along the way. Wives and husbands demonstrated the real meaning of "getting hitched" as the wife directed the plow and the husband pulled it along the long rows of rich brown earth in at least one small farm plot. Farmers worked every small field this spring day the old-fashioned way—by hand, with shovel, hoe, and rake. Happily, the Beijing smog slowly receded, and we began to perceive clearer skies and air. When we arrived in Xinglong County , we were relieved to be able to breathe deeply the fresher air.
On our arrival the school officials greeted us with the formal/informal Chinese hospitality I have come to respect and appreciate: flowers, fruits, photos, handshakes, bits of conversations…. Then the whisking off to the next activity at such speed that one hardly has time to gulp down the tea or fruit drink at one's table. But the fun is really with the students, not the pomp of ceremony.
It is still a thrill when a class of tentative, shy, yet curious high school students (ages 16-20) breaks out into applause when their visitor from the USA simply walks into the room. I began this presentation, as I have begun others in Japan and China , by explaining my hope that we small people can make lasting connections (guanxi) by learning about each other's cultures and languages. "I have great hope for the lasting friendship between our two countries. Our governments may make policies that promote war, I tell them, yet we must remember the ties of humanity that bind us. I win their hearts by quoting Confucius: "How wonderful it is to greet friends from afar." As Li Yan translates this phrase, familiar to every Chinese young and old, they recite it with her and applaud again. It's love at first sight. When I speak my few phrases of Chinese, I seal the deal. What we continue to find is that many Chinese want to like Americans. There is a feeling of exuberant curiosity. There is fear of American policy, but generally affection for American people. Many notes and poems include the phrase: May our countries be friends forever.
The first group of students I taught about American culture was full of lively humanities students, very demonstrative and eager. They asked questions about everything from fast foods to movies, to exams and what teens do on the weekends, to NBA stars to "do you like to sing?" This prompted my renditions of two songs I had hoped to teach them, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me" and "We shall overcome." Had I lived before singing "We Shall Overcome" with a roomful of energetic, lovely-voiced, Chinese highschoolers, hearts full of song and dreams? Can you picture them singing, sitting at desks piled a foot high and two-feet wide with books and papers they must memorize? Can you hear them clapping on the on-beat? They reciprocated my shaky singing efforts and our American song-fest with a full-voiced chorus of a Chinese song that proclaimed "meeting someone is like a song." I have the sheet music in Chinese, and I hope I remember to get a translation.
The girl who had started the singing had come up to give me a big hug. This was a bit of a surprise, as I had gotten used to the relative restraint of Japanese and Chinese I had met before. She asked me to write her a note and I did. It is always dangerous to sign a note to one student in a room full of 80, and unfortunately I forgot. In a Japanese elementary school classroom, the little children had written me tiny little notes and wanted my autograph. I hadn't expected a roomful of Chinese young adults to line up to have me sign their notebooks. Westerners are indeed still a good luck charm here, it seems. So, to be fair to all, I signed 'em all. As the Chinese say, "All for one and one for all!" (Or was that the musketeers…)
Meanwhile, Kadir had the same rousing response from the art students. During a long bout of technical difficulties with the computer, he showed the banners of his art and discussed them. He commented on the students' art which they had displayed in honor of his visit. Finally, when the computer was working, Kadir presented his movie. It seemed they responded quite favorably to this very new sort of art/movie/poetry presentation. Kadir asked them to discuss what peace is, and after lunch they asked him what he thought it was. They applauded his definition of both physical peace and inner peace, using the well-known story of the people with extended arms (or sometimes long spoons) who fed each other and thrived but starved if they only tried to feed themselves. Talking about inner peace was a bit of a challenge for the translator, so it is unclear how much was conveyed, other than good vibes.
Despite the school's obvious lack of economic bounty, the artwork was better than that of any high school Kadir has seen in the United States . It wasn't innovative, but it was good classical training. The Chinese art teacher enjoyed realistic art, and probably did not find Kadir's art to his liking, but he had a good relationship with the kids, and an obvious talent at teaching. The art students broke into groups and did an activity with masks Kadir had brought. Then he got them making banners, adding to the peace artwork of the Japanese students. If there was ill-feeling toward Japan , it was not discernable. The art students got busy and everything settled to a pleasant murmur of creativity.
Several of the kids' faces were strikingly eager, and they seemed eager about peace issues as well as art that was different. When Kadir finally ran out of ideas, the class was supposed to be over, but the kids just lingered, standing around. Finally they all started goofing around and taking pictures with Kadir in good-natured groups of twos and threes.
The Chinese National Examinations loom over teacher and student alike. Moving Chinese English teachers into a head-set of using active learning techniques like actual speaking and conversation, games, and listening activities is a challenge, as the pressure to teach to the test is enormous. Thus, the teacher training had quite a different feeling from the pure jubilation of the kids' classes, as many teachers had traveled two and three hours to reach the school, and also had miles to go before they were convinced that anything other than what my friend Pat calls "skills, drill, and kill" will do the trick. A colleague of mine in the summer program from California State University at Fullerton put it well: The Chinese system rewards visual-linguistic intelligence. In the U.S. , "No Child Left Behind" purports to make all kids pass. Chinese testing is designed to let some kids rise to the top—the ones with visual-linguistic perception talent.
Another thorn in the Chinese teacher's side is class size, with some teachers complaining they might try some of these ideas if they had classes smaller than 40, 50, or 60. Finally, most of the teachers present—over 100 teachers of English—were too shy to speak English in front of the group! In spite of paired talking exercises and my pleas for questions and comments, deathly silences filled the air in the morning when I asked them to speak in front of the group. It took the impassioned post-lunch pep talk of my energetic new colleague and translator, Li Yan, herself an English teacher at China Art Academy in Beijing , to shake them out of their timidity. "How can your students feel brave if you teachers lack courage?" she chided. Gradually, the room warmed and the brave grew in number. By the end, many more teachers had a few new tricks to try, and we had a useful question and answer session about everything from managing large groups or naughty students to using resources other than Internet (which is not only limited by the authorities but limited by availability). The teachers were most interested in my suggestions for using auditory, visual, and kinesthetic techniques to bolster the vast memory requirements of their students' language programs. Again, the very eager teachers gathered for pictures and email exchanges at the end of the day.
The a-bomb survivor we interviewed in Hiroshima spoke about the reason she keeps talking to groups of students and teachers, in spite of the seeming impossibility of achieving her goal of world peace. "If I speak to 100 students, and touch even one, I have hope that that one student may do something great and important for peace." Here's to that one student, wherever in the world he or she may be!