Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Entry Twelve: A Friendly Exchange

Make no mistake about it; the 2008 Olympic Games are extremely symbolic for the Chinese people and government. I have already written at length about the Olympic themed English-speaking theater competition. Well, just last weekend I did some hiking and at the summit guess what I found…a red banner welcoming the Olympics! Even the landscaping at the school celebrates the approaching games, with hedges planted and cut to resemble the Olympic Rings and other official logos. Yet as you know, internationally it seems that these Olympics have come to symbolize different things for different people.

The last few weeks have seen their fair share of controversy in China. Many of my Chinese friends have told me that they are receiving all sorts of political text messages on their cell phones. Most of these text messages echo what is readily available on blogs throughout China. People here are calling for a boycott of western products in reaction to the torch relay protests in England, France and America. The Chinese Government has made public statements urging against such protests, and instead asking people to “to express our patriotic enthusiasm calmly and rationally.” That being said, the protests are being allowed to happen, which requires the approval of someone in the government.

Teaching English in China has been a challenge for a History teacher, but I must admit that lately I have felt a little more useful. The international protests and the Chinese domestic response have raised awareness among the people here. Students, colleagues and friends alike have approached me to have conversations on this issue. I am grateful that our relationship is such where they feel they can approach me.

Most people want to know why the western media is (in their words) “so biased,” and why western leaders are supporting what they see as separatism. After all, as one Chinese student said to me, “America crushed separatism during the American Civil War.” Indeed the student is correct, and there are other examples as well. That does not, of course, make what is happening in China any more correct or incorrect – but it is a meaningful observation.

Everyone here wants to know my opinion on this issue, but I must admit that I am cautious to carry an opinion. I have access to CNN and the BBC, as well as Chinese news sources. But, I still feel there is a serious lack of verifiable information at this time. I am trying to avoid applying my western expectations of media and becoming cynical; it’s just a fact that media is a different animal in China.

The media here is not privately owned, and therefore operates under the auspices of the government. People openly admit that much of it is propaganda, but I have also seen some interesting policy debates on CCTV9 (the English language station). The media in the US is privately owned and has special rights reserved in the Bill of Rights. Debate, sometimes very harsh, is the norm. Yet, it is only fair to mention that even though the western media has complete control over its own coverage, it does not always report accurately.

In 2000, the major media networks declared Al Gore as President of the United States. I remember the night vividly. I was 17, and politically active in Southern Maine. That evening I was working in a “political war room” making phone calls to encourage last minute voters on the west coast. When the result was announced we all went home. Who I worked for in 2000 is immaterial, both campaign staffs reacted the same way – the election was over, people went home. But, of course, the election was not over – and the media, in a gross miscalculation, errantly and prematurely declared a victor. It is difficult to determine the motivation behind and impact of the media’s misinformation, but regardless, it happened.

I am not saying that the Chinese media and the American media are the same or guilty of the same misinformation. That is not the case. Rather, just keep in mind that no media source has a perfect track record. Citizens should always think critically about information received from a secondary source – especially today’s media, whether it is motivated by government officials or Nielsen Ratings.

As I mentioned before, I have access to the BBC and CNN. These web pages load in (and only in) English. Some of the editorials have been harsh, and I know a few people who are authentically angry about what has been written. Many here feel that Americans are misinformed by a biased media, and are unnecessarily politicizing what should be a celebration of the Olympic Spirit. I am quick to point out that protests are fairly common in the history of the Olympics, and not an uncommon form of expression in western countries. While this answer is accepted by most, it does not seem to satisfy anyone. Still others insist that the “West” is threatened by China’s growth and will do anything to hurt China’s image. Though I feel this opinion is not well supported with evidence, it is quite common. One thing is for sure, if protesters felt their actions would dissuade the Chinese government, it appears (at least in Jinhua) that the most tangible result has been to intensify Chinese nationalism.

The good news (especially for a foreigner hoping to travel in the next few months) is that it seems both sides are taking steps to reconcile. Today I read that the new French President made a number of formal apologies and other moves to improve relations. And, in what I interpret as a partial acknowledgement of the recent criticism, the Chinese government has publicly made a number of statements on the issue of human rights. This includes the Minister of the Information saying, "We are clearly aware of the need to keep advancing human rights." The article, published in the English language version of China Daily, also stated that “the country still faces many problems and difficulties in its human rights development, with the democracy and legal system yet to be improved.” Actions speak louder than words, but nevertheless, such official statements should be taken seriously by observers. [As a side comment, I recommend spending a few moments performing the same site search on the BBC as you do on China Daily. Contrast and compare the content.]

Yet, of course, I have friends in America who feel that China’s response is not enough. I also have friends in China that feel Western attempts are not enough. So, where does that leave me? For a variety of reasons, I have been concentrating my energy on forming relationships instead of arguments. In this spirit, I have been immersing myself into cultural exchanges as often as possible.

As usual, I eat the traditional food and play ping pong with everyone and anyone who is up for a game. In exchange I have tried to expose my students to American musical genres, but the language barrier has prevented us from analyzing the lyrics deeply enough. After a fit of brainstorming, I finally came up with a worthwhile unit that everyone could participate in: baseball!

The average Chinese person considers baseball a “wealthy sport” that requires expensive equipment. Baseball is not only unpopular, it basically does not exist. But, given that the population loves hand-eye coordination sports (ping pong, badminton, etc.) I just refuse to accept the status quo. Full baseball equipment is expensive, but not so with wiffle ball! My mother airmailed me 2 bats and 4 wiffle balls, and I built my lesson plans.

First we learned the vocabulary of the equipment and positions. We learned the lyrics and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” We read an article about the Chinese Olympic Baseball Team, and wrote a short opinion essay on the future of baseball in China. From there we talked about American expressions connected to baseball. There are a surprising number of them: “That came of out of left field.” “Take another swing at it.” “Right off the bat.” “Ballpark figure.” And then, finally, we went outside to play ball.

Using the stone pattern on the campus’s Central Square as our baseball diamond, we played for a full period. One of my students, who uses “King Kong” as his English name, absolutely crushed the ball for a double. It was fun, and many students are begging to play again during the weekend.

There is something special about sports that can transcend everything else. Certainly sports are not unique in this way; I have seen music, art, and food perform the same feat of bringing people together. Indeed, I have had many such moments here in China. I do not concede my opinions or dismiss my identity, but I use these moments to find the common ground necessary to build relationships. These strong relationships have proven crucial when trying to negotiate my way through misunderstandings and disagreements.

As world leaders address the many pressing issues worthy of political cooperation, I am beginning to see the primacy of personal relationships ahead of politics. After all, being “right” alone does not mean you can be effective in creating change; not to mention “right” can be a matter of perspective. So, it seems reasonable to suggest that things might progress more smoothly if our political solutions were born from strong and positive personal relationships. From this perspective, I am especially proud to be part of our exchange program.

I apologize if I seem a little dramatic, or if I am inflating the significance of exchange programs and teaching a few kids to play baseball… but the mood is that dramatic right now in China, at least during my private conversations. People here have overcome a lot in the last half-century, and are ambitious to achieve greater prosperity. Bottom line; they want to know if America is an ally or something else.

When pressed with this question I immediately avoid discussing geopolitics, and try to bring this huge question down to a personal level. I will do the same now, with my American audience in mind.

When I look at my Chinese friends I see hard-working common folks who shop at Wal-Mart and just want to give their kid a better life. Their government isn’t perfect, and they know it, but change does not happen over night. They value their traditions, but are curious about other people too. Sometimes they feel stressed out about money, or tired at the end of the week, but that does not stop them from having a good time when friends are around.

I am proud to call a number of people here my friend, and believe that with a little patience and honesty between us, we can accomplish more as friends than we will otherwise. Our government, media, etc. is different - but fundamentally people are people, and for the time being, that is what I am going to focus on.


Here are a few excerpts I pulled from my students' essays on the future of baseball in China. My impression is that there is a debate within China between those who favor international experiences and those are more cultural traditionalists. It may be a stretch to say these excerpts can serve as a primary source of this cultural debate, but it is worth noting the context. The class was almost evenly divided as to whether or not baseball would ever be popular in China.

“Everyone knows China is good at ball games such as table tennis, volleyball. Baseball is also a ball sport.”


“I think the most important two characters are the batter and the pitcher. So everyone wants to be one of the two and doesn’t want to be the other characters.”


“It is very expensive for Chinese right now. But Chinese is richer and richer.”


“We know baseball is very popular in America. Now China will develop in world. So I think the baseball will be popular in China.”


“Baseball will be at the Olympics and the Olympics this year will be held in China. More and more Chinese will pay more attention in baseball.”


“Because everything about the baseball was very expensive, so I think the Chinese may not like it.”


“It’s difficult to get a team together.”


“If there is a very handsome baseball player, he is good at it and he is famous. Then a lot of people will try to play baseball because of him.”


“As communication between America and China become more and more frequent, baseball, the very important sport, will also go into China quickly.”


“No coach, no experience, no players and even no fans. So I think that baseball won’t be popular.”


“As the world touch in with each other more and more, baseball games will attract more and more people’s eyes.”


“Equipment is impossible to find.”


“Baseball isn’t very popular here just because we don’t know it well. So in my opinion, baseball will be known by Chinese maybe 10 or 20 years later, at that time, you will see Chinese playing baseball everywhere.”


“Baseball is not a very safe sport. If a person first plays baseball, maybe he can’t control the ball, so the naughty ball may hurt people.”


“Baseball has been dropped from the Olympics in 2012… it will make people less interested in baseball.”


“There are TV and computers in every family. They can watch it at home.”


“No. Chinese people don’t like violent sports. Baseball is too violent.”


“No. Baseball is harder to learn than such as basketball and football. And as we all know, people play baseball need a large place. But China has so many people that there are not enough places for them to play baseball.”


“Teamwork is very important in playing baseball, and teamwork is also important nowadays.”


“Firstly, I think baseball developed very slowly in the past years. It shows that many Chinese people are not interested in playing baseball…. Baseball is too heavy, as Chinese are very thin and small, it’s not easy for them to do well in baseball.”


“Chinese like sports of all kinds.”


“In my opinion baseball will be popular in China. Because the world becomes smaller and smaller. Then people will communicate close. As we Chinese, we’ll come into the “world family.” Since Americans and some other foreign countries like baseball, we’ll also develop our baseball.”


“Baseball may be popular in USA, it may not be popular everywhere.”


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Entry Eleven: The Students

Our county, also called Jinhua, has a set of high schools to serve the very large population. The schools are ranked using a system based on the test scores of graduates. Because admission to the school is also based on test scores, the ranking is pretty stable. I teach at the number two middle school in Jinhua. They call it a middle school, but the students are of our high school age.

There are two ways to gain admittance to this competitive school. The first method, as previously stated, is to score very well on exams. The other method, which is less common, is to pay a heft tuition bill. Basically, the wealthy students pay to subsidize the education of the high test score students. There are a few athletes on scholarship as well, and I also think there is a special relationship for children of faculty at the attached University.

So, as you can see, the public high school system is run more like a set of private schools. And, in a sense, the admission process for high school in China is similar to the college admissions process in America (although the emphasis is solely on exam scores). Because of this system, students come from all over Zhejiang Province to attend the number two school. Many live much too far away to be bused in every day, which is fine, because the school is residential.

The campus looks more like a university than a high school. There are two fenced in dormitories, one for boys and one for girls. There is a massive four story cafeteria, as well as a convenience store. At this store I have bought everything from a bottle of water to fruit to stationary to ping pong supplies (I am improving). The athletic complex is impressive, and includes many basketball courts, volleyball courts, tennis courts, ping pong rooms, and a track and field. At the center of campus is a square or quad with administrative buildings to one side, and the classroom buildings on the other. The landscaping has flowers, as well as a pathway around a man made pond. It is a beautiful place to teach, and I suppose to live as well. The student body, well over three thousand students, lives at school six days a week. Many only go home only once a month. All of the schools I am familiar with in China are residential.

Primary school students appear to attend school in the same city where they live, and go home at supper time. I work with a group of primary school students on Sunday nights. They speak very little English, but are in the process of learning it and improving. There are whispers among the faculty that there are proposals to require even more English education to create a bilingual society. I love working with the little kids, and perhaps will dedicate a future blog to them. At this point however, I am most familiar with high school.

The high schoolers' day seems grueling, from before 7am until about 10pm. But, the students have lengthy breaks in the day to let off steam and work on homework. The lunch break is more than two hours long, and many students will take thirty minutes of that time to play basketball or tap a nap. After dinner there are classes until 7pm, followed by monitored study sessions until the end of the day. This is a time for students work on their homework, which they have a lot of here.

The stakes are very high in Chinese education. The competition in the job market is fierce, and because of the one child policy there is a lot riding on the success of ‘only-child’ students. Examinations, a long tradition in Chinese education, still plays the central role in determining where a student attends college and what they do after. With all of this pressure it easy to understand why my students enter my class acting a little less serious. There is no exam connected to my class, and frankly, they need the break.

Some of my students are now participating in a pen pal program with a few students at OHCHS. If you have interest in joining such a program, please email my school address:

Below I have included anonymous excerpts from some of these letters for your consideration. The excerpts are unedited; however I omitted sections that could be used to identify the student, and also the repetitive introductory paragraphs. I hope you get a sense for how sincere these students are, and maybe a taste of their many different personalities as well.


“You like field hockey and lacrosse. Mr. Long has described those to me, but I don’t how it look like either because in China we cant see the,. I like shopping too, that’s cool! But sometime I only do window-shopping, and that’s also attract me. When I am shopping I can forget everything. Do you think I am crazy?

My father is a college teacher, he teaches biology. His school is beautiful, and I’m going to study there one year later.”


“In China, all the student are very tired everday. In our school, we get up at 6 o’clock in the morning. Then we do some exercises. We have 5 classes in the morning until 12 o’clock. In the afternoon we have 3 classes. In the evening, we can’t go home because all the students live in the school. There are so much homework, we always do them in the evening. At 10:10 pm we can go to bed.

Except the hard life, there are many rules in our school. We can’t talk mobile phone, mp3, mp4. We can’t make boyfriends or girlfriends. In class, we must keep quiet. In our class there are 47 students. Luckily, they are all friendly and lovely. So it makes our life not very terrible.”


“You ask me write about some delicious food so you can make it. Oh I think its hard work because Chinese food always very complex. I can teach you an easy one. Does there have cucumber? You can buy them from the supermarket. Then cut them into pieces. Put them in a small dish, then put vinegar, soy, salt, and mix them even. After some minutes, you can eat it.”


“I study in No. 2 middle school of my city. We have a lot of homework everyday. That is boring, I think. I go back home once a week, but sometimes two weeks. I think its happy to stay in school at weekends, we can do what we want to do but we cant during the weekdays.

I have one elder sister, she is beautiful. She studies design. We lived in a village with a big river. And there’s a big tree, about 25 meters or higher. I can cook Chinese food good, and I like playing basketball.”


“This week our class has a basketball competition. I hope we will win. Our competitor is so strong. Girls will play volleyball in May.”


“My home is very near to my school. What is funny is that I spend my primary school in Jinhua. I spend my middle school in Jinhua. Also I spend my high school in Jinhua. What is worse is that I will spend my university life in Jinhua. Do you think it’s a very gloomy thing?”


“I like playing volleyball and badminton. I also like shopping and reading. Our school is very beautiful we think, we very like it. But we are very busy everyday. We have a lot of homework. We live in school. Every month we go home a time. We very envy your life.”


“Last weekend I went home to celebrate the Tomb-Sweeping Day. It’s our traditional festival. On that day, my family went to the hills where our ancestor’s tombs were there, to memory them. Also we ate traditional food called “Qing Ming Guo”, sweet or salt but very delicious.”


“I am a lucky dog because all of the people surrounding me are so friendly. I also play with them. I am happy all the time especially with weather is sunny. I like listening to the music like you. I think music is a magical thing. It can let me feel excited and forget the unhappy, tired, angry things.

My English vocabulary is limit. So I can’t express myself. I can’t describe Chinese culture. But don’t be sad. I will work hard to learn English to tell you more. Talk to you soon.”


“My school is Jinhua No. 2 Middle School. It is a beautiful school. Most students in our class are living in school. I like to live with my classmates. We always play games, talk to each other and so on. I’m very happy to stay with my friends.”


“Every day the teacher told us we must study hard or we can’t go to the better school. Every day is very busy for us. We have many homework to do, like Chinese, English, Math, history and so on. The reason of that is we have a large population in China.

My hobby is swimming, playing piano and playing “Gu zheng.” Gu zheng is a kind of Chinese musical instrument.”


“I’m excited to have the opportunity to be writing to you. It’s been an interest of mine for years to talk to a teenager like myself that’s actually from America.”


“The most important festival in China is the Spring Festival. It likes your Christmas holiday. People usually visit relatives during that time. Some of them go to shopping in supermarket to prepare the biggest supper the day before it.

On that day, most people will play with the fireworks to celebrate. When people hear the loud sound from fireworks, everyone smiles for looking forward to next harvest year coming.

In 2008, Beijing will hold the 29th Olympic Games. I wish it will be held successfully and give people all over the world a strong impression.

We will make friends at that time. It is really a good opportunity to communicate with people from all over the world. China will catch this chance to develop our economy. I have confidence to believe China will be more and more beautiful in the future.

America is a mystery place. When I was young I wish to go there for studying. Now I’m approaching my dream. I think it will come true for sometime. The most thing I like is American’s food. I like the taste of the food, like the potato chips and chickens.”


“I have ever been to England and Australia, so I know some about your live, believe I can imagine. And we have been learned about American history, it is wonderful. In my spear time I often read books, play with my friends, and surf the internet. I can play basketball as a sport, but I am not very good at it. I love horses, too. I rode horses when I was in Australia. I enjoy that feeling.”


“I stay at school. I come back home once a month. We can’t stay with our parents usually so we do everything by ourselves. It can make us self-made. I think you are more independent than us. Commonly Chinese parents are more doting to children than American parents. Maybe you are right.”


“In school days, I live in school with 5 classmates. We are in a special class. We don’t need to have exam when we go to university. Because that the study for us isn’t very important like others. But its still very heavy. We have 8 classes a day and we often study more than 10 hours. Maybe you feel it is unbelievable but it is true.

Even that, we still have free time to doing other things. I like reading and I have read many books. Do you read Harry Potter? It is really beautiful magic world. Also, I like watch NBA basketball games. Do you like it? Which team and basketball star is your favorite?”


“I have many friends who are kind and humor. Saturday is the most happy day to me. After class, I can go outside for shopping, eating all kinds of food with my friends. In evening, we can talk with each other and sing until late in the night because we are free, there are no teachers in charge of us. That’s mainly life in the school. What do you think of it?”


Well, so what do you think of it? Please post comments.

Final note: I have been invited to judge another festival, this time live on TV. As far as I can tell, the only credential I carry to earn me this TV honor is that they "need a foreigner." I think that is a strange thing to "need," but as always, I don't mind.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Entry Ten: The Olympic Stage

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you know that the Olympics are rapidly approaching. The international response to the torch relay is not something that I have discussed with many people here; I figure if they want to talk about it with me they will broach the issue. I usually have access to western media, so I am aware of the controversy. Naturally, different news sources are presenting different perspectives. My aim with this entry, however, is not to make a political statement one way or the other, but rather to try and put the Olympics (and all that comes with it) into the context of what it means for everyday people in Jinhua. I will do this by attempting to act as an ethnographer, and offer my observations as your primary source.

Disclaimer: I fully recognize that a single event is not a decisive representation of China or attitudes in China. I only offer these summaries of what I saw for your academic consideration. While my writing is not sound ethnography, it is an honest attempt to produce a primary source for your evaluation.

Background: Two weeks ago I was invited to serve as a judge in an English speaking competition. This year’s competition was different from years past because the format was one-act theatre, and the theme was the upcoming Olympics. In a three day county-wide event, all schools (primary, middle and high school) sent participants. I was one of five judges, and in addition to enjoying the performances, we were treated to an impressive lunch each day of the festival.

If you have been to a high school one-act or music festival in the states, I would say the atmosphere was similar however here there was a more to the pomp and circumstance: dramatic intro music, 2 well dressed MCs, lots of flowers, etc.

The most important judging criterion on the score sheet was English Pronunciation, worth 40% of the score. Other categories included Harmonious Cooperation (10%), Artistry (20%), Stage Performance (20%) and Scene Development (10%). Of the five judges, two were from America (Courtney, who has taught in China for over 2 years, and myself), another was a Chinese-English teacher turned curriculum administrator (for those familiar with our exchange program, it was Angela), a Chinese-English professor from the University, and a Theater Professor from the University who did not speak English. It was a real pleasure to serve in this capacity, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

The plays I have summarized are listed in no particular order. Given the topic and the timing of this festival, I hope you find the plots as interesting as I have.

Reading Target: My recommendation for students and readers alike is to read and analyze these summaries looking for patterns and connections to currents events and your prior knowledge. I offer five questions to guide your reading.

  1. What common themes, issues and/or messages are present in the plays?
  2. Given these sources, how does 'China' perceive itself?
  3. Given these sources, how does 'China' perceive people not from China?
  4. Hypothesize about the impact of these Olympics on everyday life in China.
  5. Hypothesize about the Chinese perception of what these Olympics represent.
  6. Finally, how do these primary sources influence your perspective on China?

Play One: The Torch Bearer Competition

Grade Level: Primary School

Twenty young children, maybe third graders, begin the performance by dancing in green costumes. They are all girls. As the song concludes the dancers take positions in the background; it looks like a forest. In the back center stage a boy dressed like a lion stands and stretches as if waking up. He yells, “Sensational News!” Four other children dressed as animals appear: one boy as an elephant, a girl as a puppy, another boy as a monkey, and the final girl as an animal that I could not identify. The lion explains that the Olympics are coming and they must select a torch bearer from the forest. Each of the 4 animals argues why they are the most deserving of the honor. The lion looks around and asks, “What about turtle?” Turtle slowly arrives and concedes he does not have the strength, speed or wit of the other animals. As he sulks the lion decides there will be a competition to elect the torch bearer, and it will be a race through the forest. Music starts and they run around the stage. The puppy character, neck in neck with the others, falls into a river (blue fabric being held and waved by either side of the stage). The three other leading animals watch her struggle and decide to carry on with the race. A bit later the trailing turtle sees the puppy struggling in the river and leaves the race to rescue her. As the three lead animals finish the race they all cheer for themselves, however the lion declares the turtle as the winner. The lion roars, “Do you know the lesson of the Olympics? It is harmony and friendship!” Turtle enters the scene helping the puppy walk and receives a torch. The students then sing a song and dance holding a “Beijing Olympics” sign. The play concludes with a bow.

Play Two: Spending Money

Grade Level: Performed once by a primary school, and three times by different middle schools

The play opens with a colorfully dressed person who introduces herself (a female in all four performances) as a candy maker. The set includes a large table with colorful decorations and a sign that reads, “Sweet Shop.” The candy maker explains that she sells candy to children at the school gate and is making lots of money. She says she is placing Olympic logos on her products and it is contributing to her success. She then begins to make candy, explaining the process. During the candy making she sneezes a few times on the candy, and admits her hands are dirty. She claims she does not care, and admires her finished product. She tries to sell candy to two school children, but the children have no money. The two children (girls in all four performances) go home to ask for money. One of the girls suggests that they compliment a parent (three times a father, once a mother) in order to get some money. They do so, but are told not to use the money for sweets. The students make a promise and then promptly go back to the sweet shop and buy the candy anyway. There are people dressed as large packaged candy. The candy people complain that they are dirty and cry. The students buy the candy anyway, much to the candy maker’s delight. Later, the girls return to the parent complaining of a stomach ache. The parent scolds them for lying and then goes to the candy maker. When the parent arrives to confront the candy maker there is a police officer (always in some uniform, three times the kid had a full PRC military officer’s uniform). The official questions the parent and then screams at the candy maker, demanding that the candy maker leave. The students apologize for lying and the candy maker is dragged off stage. A narrator enters and makes comments. Part of these comments includes, “There are more foreigners coming to China for the Olympics, and phenomena such as this must be reduced. We must show a good face to the foreigners.” The play concludes with a bow.

Play Three: [No English title in the program]

Grade Level: Middle School

A small boy enters the stage and wanders about. 15 or so larger boys enter the stage in formation carrying very convincing toy guns. The young boy says he wants to join the army, but is told by the tallest boy that he is not ready. There is dialogue that is difficult to understand. They then dance with the guns. The boy follows the soldiers but gets lost in what he calls “the forest.” He receives the help of someone dressed like one of the Olympic mascots, and eventually finds his way. There is more dancing, this time by 15 girls dressed in schoolgirl uniforms. The soldiers reenter the scene looking for the young boy, and the boy confidently finds them. The boy is told he has passed “the test” and is given a very large toy gun. All of the students, male soldiers with guns and female dancers, take the stage in a tight formation and march a few steps. They repeat a slogan a few times, saying, “The Olympics are coming, we must obey our word.” They march off stage.

Play Four: Beijing is Ready!

Grade Level: Once by a middle school, once by a high school

The play begins with many different school children on the stage, some with books and others with basketballs. All exit except for three. There is a girl with a book sitting in the back, and two boys with brooms. A sign divides the stage into “Class A” and “Class B.” The boy in “Class B” sweeps a plastic bag away from his side and onto the “Class A” side. The other boy returns the same action. They speak for a while about the incident and begin to grab and push each other, still talking about the bag on the floor. The girl sitting in the back rises and says, “It is no problem, it is our duty.” She takes the bag and disposes of it in a waste barrel. The two boys apologize. All exit. More students arrive and explain they will compete for a position as an Olympic Volunteer in Beijing. As they compete one of the three is less aggressive, and offers help to his opponents. Much of the scene is difficult to understand because of technical malfunctions. The less aggressive competitor is awarded the position. All enter the stage and sing, and form the Olympic Ring logo with hula-hoops. They unfurl a banner that reads, “Welcome the Olympic. Improve Manners.” They shuffle off stage maintaining their formation.

Play Five: Snow White goes to Beijing

Grade Level: Middle School

The play begins with Snow White and seven dwarfs exclaiming that they should visit the Olympics. There is a bubble machine filling the air around Snow White. A sign suggests that they have arrived in Beijing and they ask for directions. There is a song. A witch appears and places a spell on their map and on different signs that now randomly switch direction. When the witch appears there is a smoke machine that creates smoke around her. Snow White and the dwarfs wander on stage. A vendor enters with a cart. He says, “Look, Look, See, See, Yummy, Yummy, Cheap, Cheap.” Snow White buys some food from him and asks how much longer they must walk to get to the stadium. The vendor explains they went in the wrong direction. The dwarfs cry. The vendor offers to take them to their destination. All cheer. As they arrive to a gate (complete with torches topped with electric lights) the witch appears again. She attempts to cast a spell, however nothing happens. She exclaims, “Oh no, the Olympic torch!” She falls. All sing, and say “Welcome to the Olympics. Welcome to Beijing. Welcome to China!” All bow and leave the stage.

Play Six: The Olympics are Coming!

Grade Level: performed by 4 different middle school groups, and 2 high school groups

Two girls enter the stage wearing blonde wigs and baggy clothes. There is a man with a table and red umbrellas. He says, “Looky, Looky.” He then speaks in Chinese. The two girls explain that they do not understand the “strange language.” Another student appears and offers to help as a translator. The translator and the vendor speak in Chinese, and then the translator explains that the vendor wants to sell things to the two blonde girls. The girls look at the umbrellas and agree to purchase a red umbrella. The translator speaks about the significance of the color red for the Chinese. The blonde girls say, “Awesome!” After they leave, the vendor walks around the stage with a book reciting English expressions. The translator later returns and is greeted by the vendor in English. The vendor explains that learning English will not make him “forget the mother language” and he is happy to learn “a useful language.” The two blonde girls reappear. They meet the translator and invite her to a picnic. During the picnic the translator explains that the vendor has recently learned English. One of the blonde girls exclaims, “It is so wonderful, the Chinese are very good at learning languages!” They then agree to visit the vendor, who reappears at the corner of the stage with five students dressed as the “Five Friendlies.” [These are the five mascots of the Beijing Olympics] He introduces each of the five characters, who then in turn talk about themselves. There is a fish, a flame, a panda, an antelope and a swallow; each has symbolic significance that they explain. The blondes ask how much to buy all five, and the price is 350 RMB. They make the purchase, and then the group gathers at center stage for a song and to bow.

Play Seven: Hero

Grade Level: High School

The play begins with a man who introduces himself as a king. There are two people at his side. A character in red appears and claims to have killed would-be assassins. When the king demands proof, the one in red opens a computer and asks the king to watch. Four people (two boys, two girls) enter the stage to different pop music songs. Once all together, they dance. In the background, the boy in red explains how he killed the first assassin. A girl in white (who is the younger version of the boy in red during this flashback, as a narrator explained) engages in a sword fight with one of the assassins, and wins. Then two other assassins enter the stage. The boy assassin asks the girl what she wants for her birthday, and the girl replies that he must kill the king. The boy refuses, saying, “But I am a good egg.” The girl then threatens to kill him too. The younger version of the boy in red appears again, and offers to sing a song to calm the situation. The song is a terrible scream, and the two assassins fall to the stage and appear dead. The boy in red closes the computer and says that the flashback is over. The King stands and says, “I do not believe you,” and then kills the boy in red. All quickly gather at center stage and say, “Thank you,” and bow. [Special Note: The play is based on a recent and popular Jet Li movie about the warring states period in Chinese History. After the competition, I was asked for advice on how to change the play to make it more about the Olympics. It was explained that this group had been asked to change the play before the next round of competition in two weeks.]

Play Seven: [No English title in the program]

Grade Level: High School

The play begins with two students dressed as trees, and one dressed as a river. A white bunny then hops across the stage. There are some papers and wrappers on the stage. The bunny begins a conversation about pollution with the trees. After a long discussion (much of it was difficult to hear because of the reoccurring audio malfunctions), the bunny screams, “Oh no, a sand storm.” The characters are “blown” off stage and a lot of crumpled paper is thrown onto the stage as very dramatic music plays in the background. The characters return to the stage in slightly different costumes. The bunny is now gray, the river has changed (see picture) and the trees look less healthy. Again there is a discussion, and phrases such as “global warming” and “soil erosion” are mentioned in the conversation. The group blames humans for the problems and gets angry, leaving the stage. A narrator explains that humans are now “suffering because of pollution and must learn.” Students dressed in casual clothing take the stage and pick up the trash. The animal, river and trees return again looking clean and happy. They sing a song and then bow.

Other Plays – Common Themes:

There were many more plays, but it is too large a task for me to summarize all of them. The most common occurrence, other than singing and dancing routines, was the inclusion of the five Olympic mascots or “Friendlies” in the plot of the plays. Also, there were 12 different plays that included a competition to determine some kind of prize – either a trip to the Olympics, or a chance to become a volunteer. Three of the plays included characters from the classic novel The Journey West.

Final Note: With less than 24 hour notice, Courtney and I were informed that we would be singing during one of the intermissions. Since we are both Red Sox fans, I got my hands on a karaoke version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” As an ethnographer, I cannot say that we performed well, but the audience did clap.

This week I have tried to keep my conclusions out of the blog to provide space for more of your comments and discussion. Please post! It would be especially insightful if you could make connections with currents issues and/or your prior knowledge of China.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Entry Nine: Having Faith in China

A few nights ago I again went to Wal-Mart. It is the only time in my life where shopping at Wal-Mart means buying local, so I don’t mind it as much as I used to.

This time it took me a while to catch a taxi, which is the best way to travel here. I was whistling and waving my hat trying to find an open cab, but because it was raining they were all full. I walked around and around an intersection like this for at least 15 minutes. Eventually I noticed a uniformed man watching me and taking notes. I had been unknowingly waving my arms like a mad man in front of a government building. Way to go Jason. Three minutes later I caught a cab and sped off to buy a few more t-shirts (oh, and by the way, in China I take an XXXL)

Looking out my cab window I again saw construction and the hustle and bustle of a thriving city. The focus on development here is extraordinary, and the infrastructure of Jinhua is pretty impressive as a result. There are two sections to the city, Bei and Nan (or North and South). I live in Bei Jinhua, which has the University and is closest to the mountains. Nan Jinhua is easily the busier section of the city, and hosts an impressive array of different types of Chinese food and minority shops. This includes a Tibet-themed shop where one can buy Buddhist prayer items, but someone told me that not all the merchandise is as authentic as advertised.

Everywhere in the city has freshly paved roads and wide sidewalks. In many ways, it is something to be envied by a Mainer. No potholes to be seen! The clinics and hospitals are, however, a little different.

I had to have a medical exam when I first arrived here - deep breath - blood drawn and all. Good news, I have a clean bill of health, and my demand to see the needle in the package before they used it on me was readily accepted. All the foreign teachers here have this examination, so I am not too worried, but the level of sanitation was a change from what I am used to (and the visit unexpected). Waiting in line behind an elderly Chinese woman I said a little prayer, being nervous about the needle. It drew a few funny looks from those around me, but no one really understood what I was doing. Needless to say, I survived.

While I have finally settled into life here, I also have begun to feel a little antsy. What would usually be days of celebration, like St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, rolled by with little excitement. My routine needed a break. I had been in China for one month without leaving Jinhua, and it was time for an adventure. Last weekend I set off for Hangzhou.

Hangzhou, famous for its beautiful West Lake and religious shrines, has grown to become a top Chinese tourist destination over the last decade. It is about 1 hour by fast train and 2 ½ hours by bus from where I live, and the ticket costs about $10 US.

Not bad, right? Well, once you actually get to Hangzhou the costs rise dramatically. I guess Kennebunkport isn’t the only place in the world where they take advantage of tourists by hiking prices. But, like in Maine, if you know where to go you can avoid some of the traps. I stayed in a Hostel for about $18 US a night, and was right on the lake.

Wanting to treat myself, I decided on trying some Italian food. All reviews claimed that the best place in town was the Shangri-La Hotel. I have never spent so much for mediocre spaghetti with meat sauce; enough said. The Indian food I had the next day was outstanding, however, and I might take the train again just for the Chicken Korma.

More than for the food, I went to Hangzhou to relax by the lake and see some temples. I have already written here about the amazing Taoist temples and the Double Dragon Caves. Everything I heard about Hangzhou suggested the natural beauty and holy relics would top even that.

West Lake, known all throughout China, is beautiful enough to warrant a visit. The landscaping is indeed extraordinary, however far from the natural scenery that I expected. Paved paths weave around well tended trees and flowers, along the lake and over newly constructed bridges. Traditional Chinese music hums softly in the background from speakers that are shaped like rocks. One can take a boat ride across the lake, or simply sit on a bench and enjoy the view. Strangely, though, between the thousands of people, meticulous landscaping and background music, I felt like I was at a Disney Park such as Epcot. This is not meant as an insult to West Lake, just a comment on how structured my experience was in a supposedly natural place. Nevertheless, it was beautiful and I have the pictures to prove it.

The only English Channel I get on TV at home is CCTV 9, and the commercials are either trying to sell me pillows filled with tea leaves (huh?) or pushing that I visit Hangzhou. The tourism advertisements make a big deal of the temples, and so naturally it was a priority on my trip to see them.

Unlike the remote Taoist temple on top of the mountain in Jinhua, the temples in Hangzhou were flooded with tourists. The largest pagoda temple, a Buddhist hybrid of Chinese and Indian architecture, had a gold spire and a hefty entrance fee. The view from the lake of the towering monument was stunning, but the closer I got to the temple the less spiritual the experience became. The traffic was unbearable, the vendors a little aggressive, and I only saw one person who appeared to making a pilgrimage. Most people, while respectful of the history and beauty, were there as tourists enjoying a cultural relic. There is nothing wrong with this, but it carried a different vibe than the temple in Jinhua.

Unwilling to fork over the money to climb the pagoda temple steps, I set off for the well regarded Lingyin Temple. It is the largest temple in Hangzhou, and considered a historically significant temple for Chinese Buddhists.

On the ride to the edge of city where the temple sits protected in the hillside, I tried to refresh my memory about Buddhism. Only casually familiar with the religion, my basic understanding is that prince Siddhartha Gautama gave up his possessions and social status to spend his days reflecting on life and truth. Rejecting the distractions and desires of daily life, he sought and achieved enlightenment and shared his wisdom across Asia. While the monks worship as a community, the spiritual journey is very much a personal one (although, of course, it transcends the individual).

Much like Taoism, today there are many different practices of Buddhism across the world, ranging from philosophical interpretations to downright mysticism. In Chinese literature one of the most famous classics, the Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (1500-1582), describes the long path of a monk and his followers to retrieve Buddhist manuscripts from India. The novel includes characters such as the infamous Monkey King among other mystical creatures with superhuman powers. This is not meant as a blanket observation on the Chinese interpretation of Buddhism, but rather just an historic example of the different ways in which Buddhist influences have been received in Chinese culture.

When we arrived at the Lingyin Temple we had to pay a pretty steep fee to enter what was called the “scenic area.” Once inside, a pathway led to a series of caves where the rock walls revealed ancient Buddhist statues and text. They were AMAZING! Rumor has it that during the Cultural Revolution monks covered the art on the cave walls with official party posters so that they would not be destroyed. I cannot verify this claim, but it is certainly possible. Regardless of how they were preserved, the carvings were breathtaking.

We continued up the path, still surrounded by people, however feeling much more encouraged about the day because of the amazing statues. Before we entered the actual temple we found another gate. Outside there was a sign warning to “Respect and Protect These Cultural Relics.” Inside there was a massive electronic sign explaining events and ticket prices! Baffled because we had already paid a handsome price to enter the park, we stood in disbelief that once again there was a fee to see the temple.

Almost out of money (due to my indulgent pursuit of Italian food the day before) we could not afford to enter and have enough left for the train ride home. So, we turned and started back to the road, disappointed.

We began by following the path we had taken up the hill, but signs (in English, which should have been a red flag) directed us to take an alternative route down the hill. We followed the signs, but they led us through a gauntlet of vendors and mini-mall shops selling toy swords and other souvenirs. We were harassed by people wanting to sell fake Rolex watches for the next ten minutes of fast walking. It was not exactly an experience that brought me a great deal of inner peace, and despite the amazing cave walls, I almost ran out of patience.

As we finally emerged onto the street we waited for a taxi. It began to rain, and when it rains the taxis fill up fast. Down the road to the left was an older looking foreigner who appeared confused. We walked up and introduced ourselves to him. Turns out he is a physicist from Belgium traveling as part of an official lecture series. He wanted to see the temple while he was in town, but could not speak any Chinese. He had tried without success to capture a taxi for the last hour. Thankfully, with our powers combined we caught a cab in about 10 minutes, and all of us made our way back into town. He was so grateful for the help he paid the cab fair, which was a nice treat given how low on cash I was at the time. Karma, perhaps?

From the temple I went directly to the bus station, tired of the busy pace and price of Hangzhou for a tourist. Leaving town we twice passed a building, more like a warehouse than a church in architecture, with a cross sprouting from the roof. It was surprising to see a cross in China. The only other time I had encountered a Christian symbol here was on Good Friday a few days before Easter.

While walking the streets of Jinhua that Friday, a woman approached me with a pamphlet bearing a cross. I stopped and let her talk to me for a moment, but she spoke so quickly I could not understand. Others basically shoed her away, but she stood her ground. Eventually she realized my Chinese was not good enough to follow what she was trying to express, so she winked at me and walked away. She approached others as well, but like on a street corner in any American city, the average passerby did not want to stop and talk with someone about religion. After I finished my business in town I walked back the same way to see if she was still there. She was not, and the vendors seemed more comfortable now that they were the only attention grabbers on the roadside.

I have, in private, spoken with a handful of Chinese people about spirituality. I have met one Christian, quite a few people who casually believe in Buddhism, and others that are either agnostic or not comfortable enough with me to really discuss it. One of my closest friends just sighed and said, “I did not grow up with it around me, so I am really not sure.”

A recent comment/question on this blog asked about religion in China, but I must confess that I have no grand conclusions. It seems religion in China is typically a personal affair. People have the constitutional right to choose and practice their own faith. However, either a product of the culture or the system, it is pretty rare to see too much of this out in the open. The government has worked hard to rebuild religious sites over the last decade, and the people are rightfully proud of their rich and diverse history and culture. These sites have become popular destinations, a real matter of national pride. I cannot comment conclusively about the religiosity of all these sites in China, but I can say that at the Hangzhou temples I saw tourists - not pilgrims. Then again, I could have misinterpreted what I saw.

One thing is certain, traditions are alive and well here, as are superstitions. A colleague of mine at the school insists that when you sneeze twice in a row it means someone is thinking of you, and I was surprised to discover on St. Patrick’s Day that people here also believe in the power of a four leafed clover. One should never wear a green hat, because it is a symbol of adultery. Furthermore, this coming Friday many families will only eat cold food and visit tombs, part of the tradition for the Qing Ming Jie, or Tomb Sweeping Festival.

This Friday there is no school in honor of Tomb Sweeping Day, an ancient practice that both welcomes spring and honors one’s ancestors. People visit family burial places and clean them, as well as make offerings of food and other favorites of the deceased.

The cold food tradition is part of an ancient story where a prince mourned the loss of a loyal supporter whom died in a fire. The prince then ordered no fires on the anniversary of his supporter’s death; hence, cold food. This tradition was naturally absorbed into the larger festival to honor the dead.

In addition to the actual tomb, many families also have a small alter to their ancestors in a living room. Some will burn incense and make more extravagant offerings during this time in the privacy of their home. This seems to be a common way to express/celebrate spiritual ideas. I have heard from some, that much like my trying to catch a cab to Wal-Mart, it is better to go about your business without stirring up a fuss.

In some ways, religious beliefs are kept very personal, yet other festivals and holy places are celebrated out in the open as a matter of common culture and history. Religion does not play the exact same role in China as it does in the USA, but there is a sense of spirituality and tradition that should not be discounted just because it is different. Maybe what we have in common is that in both places the issue is sensitive and complicated.

After all, I have visited impressive churches in the USA and Canada and have been directed to a gift shop. As an American public school teacher I have encountered sensitivities when talking about faiths. In the Maine Mall there is a kiosk selling religious items and carvings from the “Holy Land.” People who are openly atheist or agnostic celebrate Christmas, Easter and so on in America. It sometimes frustrates the devout to see what they might consider hypocrisy or insincerity. But, sometimes, the line between religious belief and mass culture is too blurry to discern. My only point is, before making too many conclusions about religious life in China, one should expel a little energy to pull the plank out of our collective eye. And, considering the present prosperity in the context of the last century, I can see how some of the more pragmatic are satisfied to simply have faith in China.

In conclusion, what I have encountered so far in “public-life China” treats religion more like a set of traditions to be celebrated as a matter of national pride (like in Hangzhou) rather than as organized institutions or doctrines. That being said, spirituality does exist and the religions exist as well, but the practice is largely private. Because of my limited exposure, I especially welcome any further comment from my readers to help explain this complicated and perhaps controversial issue. As always, I mean to do no one harm by offering these observations, and only wish to get people talking.

One final thought.... The relationship between ethics and organized faith is often a close one for Americans. I think it is a shade different here. Because many Eastern religions are designed as spiritual pathways, rather than monotheistic beliefs with absolute doctrines, the line between philosophy and faith is even harder to draw. Perhaps in the future I will explore ethics in a blog entry, but I am still such a neophyte when it comes to China that I am not yet prepared. Any suggestions?